How I Stood Up to the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder Through an Email


I work as a school counselor and psychologist. I also have bipolar disorder.

I recently attended a training on executive functioning — the cognitive skills that allow us to plan, organize and pay attention, among other things. The trainer, a developmental pediatrician, was talking about how various mental health conditions can impair executive functioning. Strong symptoms can greatly impact one’s ability to make big decisions, learn new things and stay focused and organized.

When she talked about bipolar disorder, what she said was incredibly negative and went right along with common stereotypes. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this from someone in the child development field speaking to a room of people who work with children who have special needs.

I decided I would write her an email. It ended up taking me a month to send. I’m not sure what was holding me back — maybe hurting her feelings or making too big of a deal? I brought up sending the email one day, and my husband said, “Well, if you want change, you have to.”

So I sent her this email:

Hello Doctor,

I attended the training on executive functioning several weeks ago. I want to bring to your attention some content that was very hurtful to me.

I have bipolar disorder. My dad has it and my brother had it. This disorder has caused so much pain in my family.

I was diagnosed in 2002, and for the last 15 years, I have been fighting to overcome it. Much of that battle has been against the stigma of mental illness and the feelings of guilt and weakness that came along with it.

I felt that your comments about bipolar disorder served to further that stigma.

Over the last three years, I have been lucky enough to receive excellent therapy and I have a wonderful support system around me. With a ton of hard work and pain, I am now more stable than I’ve ever been.

Even so, your words were very hurtful. I felt the wind being knocked out of me, a hot flush of shame, anger, and then disappointment and sadness — that someone in my field was speaking in this way.

Please be careful with the way you speak and the words you use. Words are so powerful, and I ask that you choose words that will promote support and empathy, and work to end this awful stigma that hurts people who are already hurting and struggling.

Sincerely,

A bipolar school counselor and psychiatrist

I sent the email mostly for myself. I wasn’t sure I would get a response at all, and if I did, I thought it would be something like, “I’m really sorry. That was not my intention. I was just trying to illustrate (fill in the blank).” Or, “I was nervous and the words just came out.” Or some other explanation or excuse.

Instead, here’s what happened: I ended up hearing back from her the same day. She gave me a complete and open apology, accepted responsibility and made no attempt to excuse or explain. In fact, she sent an apology to the whole group, and she thanked me for speaking up. She wrote, “The stigma is strong, isn’t it?” My husband was so proud of me, and with my permission, shared my email and my story with several of our friends.

I thought this message was for me, but what I found was that the effect was much greater. I’m pretty sure the doctor will never speak like that again. And maybe there was someone else in the group who felt the same way I did and got some comfort from the apology. Maybe there was someone else in the group who speaks that way and will now examine the way they talk. Or maybe some of our friends will pay more attention to the way they, and others speak, and will begin to notice the stigma. I want change, and because I spoke up, I made a difference.

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Thinkstock photo via Bablab


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