Posted by SANE
16th Jan 2018

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” – Bill Clinton

Thank you for reading my first post. I chose Stigma for my first topic, because it’s an additional battle, that those facing mental illness, just don’t need on top of their already difficult condition. I’m also writing this because at age 12 I genuinely believed I had gone loopy. Lost my shit, fallen out my tree, had a screw loose. I believed I was doomed, if I didn’t open and close that door for the twelfth time, and properly this time. The punishment was not to be underestimated.  I repeatedly self harmed; a desperate attempt to reprimand myself hoping for a lesser punishment for my crime. Of course, there was no punishment awaitng me,  the crime was non existent and the door was fine at the angle it was. In reality, what had I was a form of OCD, low self esteem and a lack of support. I hadn’t even heard of mental health, let alone considered mine could do with some TLC. At the time I was clueless… I certainly had no idea this was only to be the first of my multiple encounters with Mental Illness. It had several rendezvous up its sleeve for me. Ones that would lead me to  the edge of very dark places and nearly throw me off the cliff. I was damned if I thought I was “all better” when I reached year 8 and no longer recited the same apology 57 times in my head simply for being an inherently wrong person in some way. I am writing this because I don’t want you, or your son or daughter, to feel isolated in the same way and fall into what has felt like a never-ending trap; the epitome of mental illness – a paradox of living out painful symptoms reflective of a very real medical condition, yet equally questioning your own right to suffer, constantly attempting to make sense of an experience that stigma coercively minimises.

Having an in-depth knowledge of mental illness is so important but it’s kind of a dichotomy: Often those  pertaining the most insight into the tribulations of MI have acquired this understanding, due to experiencing the raw darkness of a Mental Health condition themselves. Despite experiencing this pain at its primary source they are frequently left feeling their illness doesn’t really matter, because society denies their truth,  minimising their pain, through flippant comments and dismissal, even by health-care professionals. We seem to be in a world where there’s a significant divide between those who identify with how it feels and those who don’t. There’s an inimical lack of acceptance in regards to relating symptoms to behavior. For example, a person without mental health issues may acknowledge a symptom of Depression is “extreme lack of motivation” if they read this on an accredited medical website.However, if their relative resides to bed for a week, discards personal hygiene routines and curtains remain drawn, they may label this relative as lazy, useless and a “slob”.

These comments may not seem particularly slanderous or harmful as single elements but in actuality they are dangerous, ignorant and contributing detrimentally to the stigma around MH. It is vital that Mental Illnesses are accepted as real and important. When society truly adapts to this way of thinking, not only from the outside peering in at a generic list of associated-symptoms, but actively treats people with an attitude of acceptance and respect, then I will consider getting off its back.

Judgment and comparative shaming 

Who distributes stigma? Sometimes, some of the kindest, well-intentioned people you could find. Sometimes it’s friends who’ve experienced great ordeals, and perceive those  diagnosed with a MI as somehow weak or less emotionally-equipped to deal with life’s inevitable issues. It is not okay to say to or about someone suffering: “Well I got through this difficult time and I’mnot whingeing.” In life we do all suffer and we do experience challenging situations – nobody is snatching your strength because they have an illness. Their diagnosis is not reflective of your resilience and your difficulties do not determine whether someone is allowed to be ill.  There is no correlation between strength of character and chance of developing a mental health condition, so this comparative shaming serves no purpose but to perpetuate stigma. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to wake up each day and fight. It can take a lot of self-awareness to be accountable for an individual’s contribution to stigma, but it is essential to recognise so it can stop. It’s not just about sitting on the sidelines claiming to “believe” mental illness exists and thinking that’s enough, whilst judging that friend of a friend you saw at the swimming pool or out for dinner when they were “apparently off work with severe anxiety and depression.” A huge problem with our society in general is that shaming others duplicates a sport to partake in, a nasty game for the sake of an ego-trip. Preying on those who don’t seem to have a voice or the support of society. What if that swim was an integral component to that individual’s self-care routine? What if that person heard the judgment and stopped believing they had an illness at all, and therefore stopped believing they deserved to exercise their right to recovery?

Nobody really knows the implications of another’s experience. You won’t always know if someone is suffering, so be kind anyway. It is never the wrong option to offer compassion. The way we talk about MH matters, even if you’re not directly addressing someone who suffers.

The blame game doesn’t work

It really shouldn’t be underestimated. The potential danger of these flippant comments is serious. People commit suicide because they have an illness that convinces them they are a worthless piece of shit. An invalidating comment can be the icing on the cake. If you KNOW someone experiences severe depressive episodes, maybe next time you see they’re struggling and you’re about to tell them to suck it up, to smile, or to stop looking so moody,  maybe, you know, don’t. The most ‘success’ you’ll gain will be a quick counterfeit smile, or if the person is polite enough, a little fake laugh. The damage you will potentially cause is unmeasurable; it’s helpful to be aware you may be compounding the little voice that tells them they’re worthless and need to get over it.The complexity of, say, depression is that it can really alter your thoughts, and seeing things rationally becomes almost impossible. Everything is black and white, and it becomes much easier to interpret negative than positive, and minimising, neglectful comments can completely invalidate someone’s painful battle. Because stigma is still so common around mental health, you can guarantee it will only be a matter of time before someone else flippantly throws out another dismissing comment, only reinforcing the negative feelings said person is already experiencing. If replacing a dismissing  remark with a kind response makes a positive difference, why not try it out?

Over the last decade I have been told I’m “just feeling sorry for myself” by friends at school, I have been shouted at for having scars, and I’ve  been laughed at by a professional while trying to explain why my difficulties impacted my life through tears. I have been told I was “too young” to have problems. I didn’t stand up for myself at these points, instead I internalised the shame and felt like it was my fault. I blamed myself for everything.  Myself and many others are living proof that this attitude is unhelpful. Not only is it unhelpful but it’s wrong. It’s taken me a long time but I have given that shame back now; it serves my recovery in no way. I am now striving to eliminate stigma and stand up for those with mental illness.  Covertly or overtly blaming someone for their illness is another form of insidious cruelty. 

Here are some things not to say to someone suffering:

  • If you just did *activity* then you would be fine. With MI it’s often feels very inundating  to do the things that help.
  • I wish I had your life of luxury, you just do nothing all day. This perpetuates already present guilt, and no, you wouldn’t rather feel stuck in this despairing state, too anxious to leave the house.
  • Everyone worries/gets down/is tired sometimes. You just have to think more positively
  • You will be better soon. Offering prognosis can seem unrealistic and give a false sense of hope, maybe try “I am here for you through the bad and good.”
  • There’s always people worse off than you. If there was a ranking from least to most annoying comments this would be really, really, high. Do people starving in Indonesia prevent  wealthy business men in the UK from growing tumours? No, so why would other’s misfortunes  correlate with a mental illness diagnosis?
  • I saw you did *activity*. You must be better now. What?
  • You just need to be more positive. It’s all in your head. Ok great. Thanks. I thought the cause was rooted in my toenails.
  • Look at you still in your pyjamas and dirty hair. Ha Ha Ha. What a slob! But I got out of bed. The effects of MI on motivation/sense of purpose are stifling. 
  • You’re so oversensitive! Typical judgment from someone doesn’t want to be accountable for their invalidating comments. If you wouldn’t say it about a cancer patient, don’t say it about someone with MI. 
  • You’re just feeling sorry for yourself. SO helpful, thank you friend. I will get to the doctor’s ASAP and advise them to re-diagnose me. 
  • You’re such a negative person. I have an illness. I am not my illness, nor am I defined by my negative thoughts.

These examples are obviously all in second person, but it’s wise not to talk ABOUT people this way either.  Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, there is no ‘type’ of person who gets ill, and there is no dress code. Don’t assume because someone appears to be functioning, dresses well and looks fine that they are.


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