I normally post online about Muppets, coffee, musicals and cats, but something happened recently and I can’t stop thinking about it: the Kenneth Cole billboard that links mental illness and gun violence. A blog I posted on my Facebook critiquing it was mostly ignored (it got maybe 2 likes), while I got 318 likes on another post.
That one was about my hair.
So now, I’m on a tireless quest to help people understand why mental health stigma can be devastating. You might think this doesn’t apply to you, but even my super kind-hearted friends have said things to me about mental illness to “help” that felt more like a punch in the stomach. Even I need to work on the way I see myself and others with mental illness.
Here are 10 reasons why you (and I, and everyone else) need to stop stigmatizing people with mental illness:
1. It makes it harder to ask for help.
Those three words, “I need help,” floated behind the curtain of my mind for too long. They’d peek out — peek a little more — and then run back to hide again. I could feel the words trying to slide out of my mouth desperate to be heard, but shame would push them back again. When they finally escaped they wore a lot of costumes, hidden in “I thinks,” “Maybes” and “I’m not sure’s” to cover what I really needed to say.
When we make people feel like there’s something odd/shameful about having a mental health issue, we make it hard for them to admit they need help. Sometimes when they finally do, it’s only when they’ve become most desperate. What should have been a first step becomes a last resort.
2. It makes people feel like monsters.
Once, after telling a friend I took medication for depression, she had a dream I was chasing her with an ax. Because of what I said about depression! I was confused and so hurt. Me? The girl who took a cockroach out of her apartment to set it free? The girl who gave the building exterminator an orange freeze-pop and asked him to please not kill the mouse? It made me never want to tell anyone else ever again.
When the media shouts and obsesses over mental illness like it’s a fearful thing (“Did the mass killer have a mental illness?” “Monster shooter had depression!”) it misrepresents a whole group of people. They don’t often show people with mental illness who are doing phenomenal things in this world. Fear sells, but it also shames.
3. It can make you hurt people you care about, even if you don’t mean to.
Think of all the people you interact with and care about in your life. One out of four of them have a mental illness. You never know who’s listening and how your joking or comments affect them. Educate yourself about mental illness before you make hurtful jokes or get on your soapbox. All the cool kids are not stigmatizing anymore, so you don’t want to look like a goober.
4. It makes people feel alone.
When people don’t talk about mental illness (or whisper it like it’s dirty word) it makes people feel like it’s uncommon or something to be ashamed of. Stigma isolates, but community and connection can be an important part of healing. We need to know our people are out there. We need to know one day we will be welcomed with open arms.
5. It makes people feel guilty about taking medication.
Because of some lame comments from people who I trusted (with no medical background) about medication, I’ve been off my medication about 10 times. I tried so many alternative therapies, but always ended up in the same position. Then when I went back on medication, I felt like a failure. It wasn’t until a brilliant, compassionate psychiatrist sat me down and said, “Stop it,” that I finally changed my attitude. She told me it wasn’t weak to take medication; it was strong. I wasn’t cheating life by taking it; I was cheating myself and everyone else by denying myself it.
Different methods work for different people, but never shame someone for taking medication for their mental illness. It can have devastating consequences.
6. It denies those with mental illness hope.
I moved to New York City from a small town, and now I’m a graduate student at New York University. I have amazing friends and a supportive community. I volunteer and teach amazing kids. I’m happy. But there was a time I couldn’t imagine these things for myself. I didn’t have any role models who had a mental illness. I only knew the stigma.
When people with mental illness come of out the shadows, it shows others they can live successful, beautiful lives — with a mental illness.
7. It makes people feel weak.
When we shame people for asking for help, it makes them feel weak. The idea that anyone can just “get over” or “work though” a mental illness is outdated. On the contrary, it takes tremendous strength to ask for help and stay with treatment. It’s badass.
8. It doesn’t help people get the mental health care they deserve.
Care for people with mental illness should be top-notch (I mean, we’re talking about the brain here), but in my experience, it’s not. I’ve been treated like I’m a child. I’ve been on hold with insurance for 45 minutes only to be told there’s “nothing they can do.” I’ve noticed compassion is missing from our mental health system, and I think stigma is a big barrier as we work to improve our mental health system.
9. It causes lack of education about mental illness.
I remember when I started experiencing obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, I was so ashamed and didn’t understand what was going on. I thought I was just some kind of freak.
We need to educate kids, teens and adults about mental illness so when they’re experiencing the symptoms they’ll know what’s going on. When we are silent, they stay silent, sometimes delaying treatment long after symptoms occur.
10. It’s not compassionate.
We have to have compassion for people with mental illness. And those who have mental illness need to have compassion for themselves. Don’t believe the stigma, and get the help you deserve.
Follow this journey on We Have Apples.