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The Stigma of Mental Illness

Lately I’ve gotten many comments from friends, family, and strangers alike about how open and honest I am about my life. That it’s courageous, and I’m brave. My first reaction is to wave that off and say it isn’t that I’m brave. When I started writing Magical Shrinking it didn’t occur to me that people would be reading the intimate details of my life, I just felt I had a story I needed to tell. I thought maybe my story could help people, and if it meant “outing” myself as mentally ill, so be it.

The reason why people are impressed about how open and honest I am is because I’m admitting I have a severe and persistent mental illness. I’ve been on Social Security Disability for a mental illness for the past fourteen years. I’m admitting to having been addicted to crack and choosing to live as a homeless person. I’m admitting so many crazy things it even makes my jaw drop sometimes.

The problem is, there’s a huge stigma attached to mental illness. Massive stigma. There are people I know who take an antidepressant because they’re depressed due to difficult situations who are afraid to talk about it. Because their families will mock them, will talk shit about them, and act differently toward them.

Does that sound right? That a depressed person needs to keep such pain a secret from their friends and family? Because they might be alienated or judged? No, it’s not right at all.

And that example was someone with what’s likely a temporary, situational depression. Not a major depressive episode. No hospitalization necessary. Still able to work, and take care of the kids, and do all the things they need to do every day.

So what of us? The people with severe mental illness? If people are being cruel about the woman who’s taking Zoloft because she lost a loved one and is depressed, what are they saying about me? Nothing nice, I’m sure. How many pejorative words are used behind my back about my history of mental illness? That I’m crazy, a nut, screwy, a crackpot? That I’m fucked up? I’ve been to the “nut house” so many times? The loony bin?

I knew what I was getting into when I wrote Magical Shrinking and when I started this blog. I’ve been preparing for it for years in my own way. When I returned to college in Los Angeles at 29, I began sharing parts of my life in class when it was appropriate. Years later, by the time I graduated with my MSW, I had no trouble throwing my hand up in class and talking about being a crack head, or in the mental hospital.

I’d love to be able to say I don’t care about stigma, that it doesn’t matter to me, but it does. There are aspects of my mental health history I’m not ready to put on the blog yet. Words exist in the lexicon of the mental health profession that can instantly destroy credibility. There are things you can do to yourself (for example, purposely cut your skin) which will make people shake their head knowingly, because they’ve got you pegged now.

Oh, no. Don’t even think you have me pegged because of anything I’ve ever done or because of any label I’ve ever been given in the past 20 years. Hell no. That’s why I’m doing this. We can’t all hide and pretend we’re not dealing with the shit we’re dealing with, and we can’t forget the things that have happened in our past. We can grow from all of it.

Stigma is an issue I will come back to again and again. It’s not okay to look down on or stereotype people with any mental illness. I don’t care what it is or what you think of their behaviors. Until you’re ready to start laughing at someone with cancer, don’t laugh at someone with bipolar disorder. 

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Thanks for sharing your story! Can I steal that last line for use in my practice? It'd make a good book title, too. I am a clinical social worker at a nonprofit, many of my clients are diagnosed with bipolar, among other disorders. When we talk about stigma, we usually end up shaking our heads and throwing up our hands. We've got a long ways to go, but your words are helping to dispell the myth.

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Thank you

Hi Mary,

Thanks! And feel free to steal the last line! Stigma is something I've become very passionate about and I hope to write much more about it. On this blog, and my website, I'm going to keep trying to get people to realize there's no shame in having bipolar disorder or any other mental illness.

Thanks again,