For thousands of years, people with symptoms of mental illness have endured persecution, up to and including death. Horrifying abuse and mistreatment in asylums
and hospitals. Painful and flat-out torture treatments (electroshock therapy and lobotomies were most definitely a thing).
When we look at the current climate today we have come such a long way. Psych wards are not places of torture anymore. We have medications, talk therapy, and the overall acceptance that mental illness is a real, tangible health problem. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and the negative mainstream media coverage focusing on the few outliers encourage the thought that a lot of people with more severe manifestations of mental illnesses are violent.
Whether it’s from friends and family, people in our schools and communities, or the general public we still face being misunderstood and mistreated. Trying on top of that to communicate with people who will never truly understand our perspective is just flat out exhausting.
In the West, mental health illnesses have become increasingly more accepted by the general public. Which is amazing, because instead of hiding in the shadows of isolation after thousands of years of brutal mistreatment and coping with debilitating symptoms privately, these issues are increasingly more discussed by mainstream outlets from people of all walks of life and influence. Better treatments backed up by medical research that relieves the painful symptoms that plague the people who have these conditions are now more readily available and effective.
However, illnesses like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder etc. are still less accepted and more widely misunderstood. News outlets will report on the extreme cases where a mental illness went untreated and how it could have led to a traumatic event. I.e. murderers and terrorists who have a mental illness. Although there is a conversation to be had here about what illnesses contribute to which behavior, this coverage on the minority of mental health-related issues that lead to these events further increases the stigma that people with certain types of mental illnesses (I.e schizophrenia) are homicidal maniacs.
There are still places in the world that are not accepting of mental illness. I don’t just mean third world countries. For example, I learned of this concept of a Japanese subculture called “Yami kawaii”. Yami translates loosely to “darkness” while kawaii loosely translates to “ability to be loved”. Basically, it’s this aesthetic and subculture that highlights aspects of mental health problems like self-harm. In Japan, mental illnesses are still highly stigmatized. Depression, self-harm and other mental health problems are generally swept under the rug and regarded as a weakness. Japan also has the highest suicide rate in the world. I will link an article that I read that goes deeper into this topic.
Japan is a modern, developed country so this came as a surprise to me. It highlights the fact that even in the developed world, people who suffer from mental health problems still face the painful sense of shame attached to it.
In America, although mental health is generally regarded as being just as important as physical health, there are still stigmas attached to them and some more than others. So where does this stigma come from? Well like I said people with mental illnesses have been horribly mistreated for thousands of years. We can’t expect everybody’s attitude to change all of a sudden. This takes time but the more we talk about it, the more awareness and education we bring to this the smaller that stigma gets.
Things like depression and anxiety have become more widely accepted and less stigmatized and even,
unfortunately, glamorized in recent years. In popular media and culture, we have books, films, tv shows (13 reasons why I’m looking at you) and even social media that takes these issues and can spin them in a light that romanticizes suicide and mental health problems. Which is dangerous for a plethora of reasons. Glamorizing severe mental health problems can encourage people, specifically the more impressionable youth, to engage in activities that lead to self-harm or death. I will get more into my thoughts on this in a different article.
This concept of stigma has affected my own life. I have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder (with mixed features) and I was misdiagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder for 7 years of my life. If we look on good ol’ web md it defines SchizoAffective Disorder as “A mental health condition including schizophrenia and mood disorder symptoms”. I began hallucinating when I was 16 years old in addition to my anxiety disorder and major depressive episodes.
For years I have been on medication after medication that was this harrowing trial and error process and I was on the wrong medication for a long time that gave me little to no relief and in some cases made my symptoms worse. Usually, the height of the hallucinations are tied to my depressive periods and high levels of anxiety (hense the ‘mixed features’). Now I am well managed on psychiatric medication, have engaged in talk therapy, have found better coping mechanisms and try to make healthier lifestyle choices which contribute to the fact that I do not have these breakthrough episodes nearly as often as I used too.
Throughout this time when I was younger, I’ve had people not want to be friends with me, people not want to date me after I told them, or after they witnessed an episode. It is their right. They should have a choice in who they choose to spend time with and I can’t hold a grudge against that. It just hurt. I’ve had people I thought were friends talk mercilessly behind my back. I was the butt of painful jokes consistently. People have called me “crazy” and “disturbed” among other things. I have had judgment cast down upon me. Which hey, again, it’s their own prerogative and that’s just a facet of life. I can’t blame them or hold anger in my heart because they should ultimately choose what associations they have, as should we all.
I want to tell you about an instance I had recently that I also spoke about in my article about how to confront people in a productive way. I had a conversation with a family member about how I’ve started this venture on the internet to share my experiences in order to help other people and to add to the conversation. They said, “something really disturbs me about your plan, I get that you want to help people, but do you really think airing your dirty laundry on the Internet is the smartest idea?” At first, I kind of expected this reaction. Just because a) I know they have never had a tangible grasp on what I experience because they’ve never experienced it and have made seemingly little effort to do so. Which is fair, if you’re struggling with a mental illness you can talk until you’re blue in the face but people who don’t struggle with the same thing will never truly walk in your shoes. And b) I know them. I expect this kind of language from them so at the time of this comment I didn’t take it personally. THEN I started thinking about it over the proceeding days and the more it got to me. Dirty Laundry. That’s what I am. This sense of shame washed back over me, then anger, then I let it go.
These illnesses are a part of me. They have shaped my life, my experiences, and how I see the world. Of course, I am more than my illnesses. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the feeling that people close to me only love part of me. They pick and choose the parts they want to love. While the rest is dirty laundry.
I have always felt this sense of shame. I have always felt ashamed of myself because I just wanted to be like everybody else. I have felt this sense of shame not just within myself, but I perceived it in outside people “looking in” around me as well.
This is part of the stigma. I find that I even impose these stigmas on myself. I feel that sense of shame from time to time again. I’ve even had trouble telling doctors my diagnosis because I thought they wouldn’t take me seriously. To be fair, sometimes they didn’t.
I brought up my issues in a conversation with him a few days later, because I needed to confront this issue. I met with him in person with the intention that I needed to be upfront and honest with him about how this comment got under my skin in a calm and direct way. He apologized for his poor word choice and said he didn’t mean it the way I took it. This ended up being a very healthy and impactful conversation. The best we can do is explain it the best we can, in a way they will understand and let go of our own frustrations. Which will always be an ongoing process.
In this age of social media, we have the incredible ability to communicate with people all over the world. Mental health problems are so wide-reaching. Case in point, Schizoaffective Disorder affects approximately 200,000 people per year in the U.S. and is considered common. We shouldn’t have to hide in the shadows anymore. We shouldn’t have to feel this sense of shame of a part of ourselves that we didn’t choose.
This is a part of why it’s so hard to reach out for help. If you are struggling with something, anything, there are so many resources now. It’s never been easier to get access to therapy or any psychiatric help. Your loved ones might not understand and particularly if you’re young this is especially damaging. Reach out. Be honest with them. You can get the help you need it’s just a process of ripping the band-aid off.
The best way to further end this stigma is communication. Communicate with your loved ones, join the conversation. Be your own best advocate. The more we talk and explain what we experience in a way that others will understand, the more this stigma can be lifted.
Love and Light as Always