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Uncovering Humanity in a Fog of Stigma

Stigma from a mental illness can be devastating. It is based out of fear and lack of understanding. When most people think of mental illness, their thoughts go straight to the fictional characters in television, movies, and even the 11:00 news with its hyped-up features. Too often, stigma regarding mental illness takes over rationality. Society (especially those who are uneducated about mental health/illness) have a tendency to exhibit an intolerance and an aversion to mental illness; sometimes acting as if they can “catch-it” if they get too close to “that” person.

It seems that it is easier for people to understand a physical disability. Because they can "see" it with their own eyes; they can make sense of it. With mental illness, people usually only see the side effects of the illness, making it difficult for them to make sense of it. They can’t see inside the brain of the person with mental illness, whose neurotransmitters aren’t firing right and therefore aren’t able to communicate to the brain properly. They don’t know about the trauma that may have played a role in triggering the mental illness. They don’t know that this person had been biologically susceptible to mental illness. They don’t know the whole story and because of this, they may make it much more difficult for that person to seek help, or even acknowledge that something is not right. It can be very easy for individuals, families, spouses and friends, and sometimes even doctors, to discount moods of the person who is struggling with mental illness.

If I could shout this from the roof tops, I would... mental illness is not the end to one’s life! With the right supports, mental stabilization and wellbeing are achievable. Some of the interventions/supports for folks with mental illness include but are not limited to: medical interventions including hospitalization for stabilization when/if needed and pharmacological/medication. There is also the important component of psychosocial treatments which may include: psychotherapy/counseling (including expressive therapies/art therapy), family therapy, education, and group and community supports.

This is not to say that living with and treating mental illness is always easy, rather it can be a long and winding road. There are so many feelings that someone living with mental illness may experience: including anger, fear, shame, loss, and confusion, just to name a few. People they knew and trusted may fall off the face of the earth, others may become overly protective to a fault. Others may place labels on them, including, “He’s a Schizophrenic” or “She’s an anorexic” or “He’s bipolar”. Even the way one refers to mental illness can stigmatize! People and children (I’ve seen this first hand) are labeled by professionals, by the community, and by family. This labeling may eventually lead to folks with mental illness labeling themselves. I will never forget when I heard a child introduce themselves to me as a diagnosis, rather than giving me their name. It was heartbreaking. Though society is still learning, I feel it is shameful and indefensible for people who are in the profession to lose touch with humanity and treat people like illnesses and diagnosis, rather than human beings. This is why education, not only for society but for those in the medical and mental health profession, is imperative.

There are many, many people living with mental illness. So often, we hear the negative and rarely hear about the triumphs. I would like to refer to two inspirational and brave women who have lived and are living with mental illness. Both of these women wrote about their experiences with mental illness and I highly recommend reading their autobiographies. I feel that both of these books, through the narrative of their life experiences, bring a touch of humanity to their diagnosis. Both women have won numerous awards, are prolific writers, educators and advocates for folks with mental illness; including Manic Depression/Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, by Kay Redfield Jamison, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1995

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn Saks, Hyperion Books, 2007

In closing, I would like to leave you with this thought...
Hold onto humanity. When you are are unsure of what you see before you, this is the time to educate yourself, reducing your fear and allowing for compassion.