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Why We Need to Come Out of the Shadows of Mental Health Stigma

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For many years, I hid out with my dark secret. Of course, my family was aware, but some of my family members weren’t aware as to the extent of my mental illness. I would cry tears, calling out to God, asking why He made me like this. Why I couldn’t understand myself, and people around me couldn’t understand my personality, my quirks, my inability to cope with certain things and aspects of life. Although I was “labeled” with depression, I knew deep down that it was much more than depression. I lived out many of my years in frustration and desperation, trying to get to the root issue of what was wrong with me.

When I look back, my not wanting to take the mask off is, unfortunately, the very thing that held back my progress and ability to heal sooner than later in my life. I realize now that if I had only had the courage to come forward sooner, to ask questions and not be afraid of the answers, to conduct the search into what I needed to start the healing process, so much could have been avoided. Nevertheless, we can’t live in regret of what was; we can only face the reality of what is.

The stigma that those of us with mental illness face is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to mental health care. It plays out in a way known as social distancing. What this means is that people with mental issues are more isolated than those without.

Look around and you will notice that this perception is fueled by the media in movies, TV, magazines and social media. Many times, the evil villain is living with mental illness such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder (DID) or, of course, borderline personality disorder (BPD).

It is a known fact that many people in this world hold negative attitudes and stereotypes toward people with mental illness. From a young age, children will refer to people with mental illness as “crazy” or “weird;” these terms are used throughout adulthood as well. The biggest stereotype is the perception that people with mental illness are dangerous and that they will hurt other people. The fact of the matter is: mentally ill people are in more danger of harm from others than the other way it is stigmatized.

It has been my personal experience and observation that even trained healthcare providers may sometimes approach the mentally ill with reticence until a relationship is established. It is imperative that you don’t give up. You need to let the doctors and clinicians know that you are serious in your quest to get well. Unfortunately, some of us with mental illness have a reputation of not following through on appointments and then there is always the medication factor that comes into play. Overuse or underuse of medication by someone with a psychiatric disorder is a bad thing either way and can lead to a frustrating relationship with the doctor who is trying to help you.

This stigma can result in the patient with BPD or other mental illness embracing an attitude of “why try” during the treatment process. Because of this very reason, many times the mentally ill will suppress or cover up their symptoms by using alcohol, drugs, sex or just ignore their symptoms. You have to fight through it and allow yourself the opportunity to be treated. Covering up symptoms can lead down a rabbit hole that is often worse than the mental disorder itself. What I mean by that is, for instance, in turning to drugs or alcohol and perhaps ending up with a DUI (or worse) only leads to more stress for you and those who love and care for you.

In reality, most people who experience mental health issues are able to live with and manage their symptoms and lead a productive life. This is especially true if they receive help early on. All you need to do is look around at famous actors, authors and even many famous professionals in their field who have come out as having depression, bipolar disorder or other symptoms. I will always look up to and admire Carrie Fisher for all the work she did to bring bipolar disorder out into the limelight and help break some of the stigma towards the disorder.

In doing my research, I found out that The Equality Act of 2010 in the United Kingdom makes it illegal to discriminate directly or indirectly against people with mental health problems in public services and functions, access to premises, work, education, associations and transport. It is considered extremely politically incorrect to stigmatize people with genetic/physiological illnesses, so why should it not also be so with mental health conditions? Left undiagnosed and untreated, mental illness can develop into worse problems. Not only can it take a toll on the person living with the mental illness, but it takes a toll on their interpersonal relationships, especially with family members, co-workers, and can lead to suicide on behalf of the patient.

There is a long-held belief that the mentally ill are in some way different from “normal” functioning individuals. In my reading on the subject, I found many to put a label affixed to the mentally ill that they are not able to function properly in society and that they need to be treated with caution. This type of stigmatized attitude is extremely discriminatory towards people with mental health issues. It is one of the main reasons I believe we need to bring these issues out into the open and have a dialogue about them.

There is a double challenge. We struggle with the symptoms of our disability and then we also are challenged by the way society stereotypes us. This can sometimes put us in a position of wanting to lead a “double” or “hidden” lifestyle and can rob us of the opportunities “normal” people take for granted. For instance, if we isolate ourselves because of depressive episodes, it does not help us in our healing. That’s the time that we need to reach out to those around us for help in pulling through the rough times. I know because I used to isolate and be fearful of what people would think or say if I told them what I was going through. What I found, however, is that people are more often willing to help and be there for you during those times of need… especially your counselor or psychiatrist.

One of the biggest stigmas persons with mental illness can often face is that they are considered not responsible or not to be trusted, so they should have a “normal person” to act as a guardian or power of attorney to oversee them, their affairs, and that their life decisions should be made by others. In some cases, it may be true. Unfortunately, there are those of us who will need a guardian. Just as with physical illnesses, there are gradations of mental illness that exist. Each case is individual and should be judged accordingly.

What helps to diminish the stigma is when “normal” people meet and develop relationships with a person who has mental illness, who is capable of holding a job, and contributing to the community. The more influence we have or can contribute to our community and those around us will help to establish a new thought about how to view the mentally ill. It is (I believe) very important for us to come out of the shadows of hiding to help diminish the stigmatism.

Did you know that there is no word for prejudice against the mentally ill? Not such as racism, homophobia, nor sexism. Years ago, we stopped using the n-word as it was considered politically incorrect and degrading, and rightly so. We still throw out words like “crazy, psycho, lunatic and retard” without regard to those of us who are mentally ill or disabled, however. This is where we must come together as a voice in our communities to speak out against these awful words. It is my belief that being labeled one of these words is sometimes the very reason why we keep quiet about our disorders or symptoms. We have to be bigger than the words though and allow ourselves to be seen for who we are — as participatory members of society.

There is a completely new level for those of us with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Having BPD is often viewed in negative terms by mental health practitioners and physicians. BPD has a stigma associated with it that goes way beyond those associated with regular mental illness, such as depression or anxiety disorders. Again, there are grades of mental illness, and unfortunately, BPD has a reputation.

There are websites for people who are in recovery from being married to or having a relationship with someone with BPD. There are websites that teach you “How to Train Your Borderline.” I have come across some websites and blogs that are so negative towards those of us with BPD that I cannot bring myself to read them.

True, BPD is one of the most difficult disorders to treat for a myriad of reasons. We might have major relationship struggles; we might experience black or white thinking (meaning we “split” on people), putting them in a category labeled either “good” or “bad.” We might test people to see if they will abandon us. We might use suicide as a real or perceived weapon to keep those we love in our clutches. Having said all of that, those of us with BPD must look to find therapists and psychiatrists that will work with us with the same compassion and empathy as any other person with mental illness. There are many therapists who will flat-out refuse to treat someone with BPD because we are considered manipulative and draining. BPD can be draining not only to the one living with it but to those around them. It has been my personal experience that with the right tools such as dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) we can integrate very well into any situation in life. I strongly advise you, if you do have BPD, to seek out a counselor who is specifically trained in this area. It will save you a lot of time in recovery if the person you are working with has this expertise.

When it comes right down to it, increased awareness is probably one of the most important things that can be done to counteract stereotypes the mentally ill deal with. This is why I am writing my book “Searching For Grey” about dealing with BPD and co-existing mental disorders. We, the mentally ill, must come out of the shadows and let our voices be heard. This is the only way we are going to make progress against this stigmatism that has been long held against our community.

Do not be afraid to share your story, which is easier said than done. I realize and know full well, the reactions that can occur towards you when you “come out” of hiding. I have already started to experience those reactions exhibited by people who were considered to be long-time friends. The judgment and the hushed whispers behind your back, the unreturned phone calls and text messages, the deleting or blocking of you on Facebook or other social networks. I understand what the price is; however, I also understand what the price is if we do NOT speak out.

It is a brave choice to live out loud. Many people hide many things for various reasons. There is a scripture that says, and I quote, “the truth will set you free!” (John 8:32.) In my personal experience, I find this to be very true. I pray you will make a decision to share your journey with someone and start making the connections in your community that will help to evolve awareness of mental illness to the next level.

Follow this journey on the author’s website.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Getty Images photo via cindygoff

Originally published: April 5, 2023
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