Stigma is a [email protected]#r-letter word. (I know there are actually six, but bear with me: as a metaphor connecting stigma to the various four-letter swear words commonly used in English, it works.)
I am speaking of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and the lack of empathy and understanding that follows – and that’s at best. At worst, blatant discrimination is the result. Stigma is inappropriate, unnecessary and offensive. Truly a four-letter word.
I came to this realization through the unique experience of being diagnosed with both a major physical illness (a heart defect leading to open-heart surgery) and a mental illness (bipolar disorder). It was in comparing the two experiences, both personally and professionally, that I realized the destructive power of stigma, which is very prevalent with respect to mental illness but sometimes nonexistent with other more known illnesses.
The reality was that years after fixing one major organ with open-heart surgery, it appeared another, this time my brain, wasn’t working properly. Despite the similarities of the illnesses – in both cases, a major organ had a biological failure that created dramatic symptoms – there was nothing similar about the two experiences.
First, there was the challenge of self-stigma, which was so strong that for nearly two years I refused treatment and actually tried to find my way back to health through the sheer force of will and determination (as though that was a viable option).
Stigma reared its ugly head in a second, external way. This time it came in the form of confusion, discomfort, judgment and at times outright discrimination in the minds of those around me. This happened regularly and not only with those in my professional life but also those in my social life and family. It was jarring to realize all of the support, unconditional love and empathy that came my way when my heart wasn’t working was nowhere to be seen now that my brain was failing.
After finally letting go of stigma, I began to treat my illness properly – as a medical illness that required my attention, research and, ultimately, treatment. This approach lead to a successful return to full health within six months and, for the vast majority of the days since June, 2005, I have been living well with bipolar disorder.
Once I fully “owned” my illness, I realized I had the opportunity to help others by sharing my experience. Very few people have faced both a physical and mental illness, recovered, are willing to speak about it, and are effective public speakers. My degree in Theatre and Speech Communication, along with my interest in public speaking, provided the final ingredient.
So, in 2006, I started talking.
My message was, and still is, very clear: stigma continues to exist regarding mental illness because of fear and a lack of understanding. It may often be innocent, but it doesn’t belong, and education is the first step toward eradicating it. We should never again speak of mental illness in any other terms than what it is – an illness.
If you know someone with a mental illness (and statistics say you probably do) or if you have one yourself, be a part of the effort to clean up our act.
Follow this journey on Empower Professional Services.
Thinkstock image by Victor Tongdee