Several years ago, I had a client who suffered depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. She talked about how she always felt that these symptoms chained her up from having a good life. She explained that she was less afraid of the symptoms than people noticing the symptoms. This is where stigma comes into play. We as a society have a knack for adding weight to people who are already carrying a great load. The question we have to personally ask ourselves is, “how many chains am I willing to unlock?”
According to NAMI and the CDC,
- 1 in 5 adults, and 1 in 5 children suffer mental illness (Link)
- Suicide ranks second in deaths in ages 10-34, and within the top ten in all age groups above age 9 (Link)
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
- Television and movies – One of the benefits of television and movies is their ability to make us laugh, cry, and be afraid within the comforts of our homes or movie theaters. We can feel uncomfortable without having a physically uncomfortable presence in front of us. The problem is that many films and TV shows in the dramatic genre offer gross misinterpretations or exaggerated portrayals of mental illness. Procedural dramas such as Law and Order: SVU, Dexter, and CSI, while entirely entertaining, give uninformed viewers unrealistic views on illnesses such as antisocial personality disorder and schizophrenia. Movies like Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and Girl: Interrupted, dramatize borderline personality disorder and offer words such as psychopath and sociopath without proper definition.
- News and media – News and media have a two-fold problem. First, like drama, they are often severely misinformed regarding mental illness. By focusing solely on the rare occasions of violence, viewers are not given the other, and more relevant, side of the statistic. That statistic states that while violence can coincide with sufferers, it is quite rare. (Link) However, people suffering illnesses such as schizophrenia are more likely to commit suicide. This brings us to the second problem of news and media. The news has a tendency to ignore important facts regarding mental illness. Instead, they push popular culture an celebrity gossip in its place.
- Family and friends – This category is a bit tricky, because family and friends are supposed to be our support group. Unfortunately, they can be overwhelmed, frightened, or even willfully ignorant of the disease. Some family members ignore the problem, minimize it, or chastise their relative for what they perceive as weakness. This is doubly painful because our last personal barrier against the stigma-filled world may abandon us.
HOW DO I STOP IT?
It’s time make the decision between ignorance and caring. If you are choosing to be bold in the face of stigma, I congratulate you. I also warn you of the very difficult road you now face. Here are some simple tips for learning about stigma and making your first footstep towards truth.
- Read the literature – At the click of a browser icon, you have a world of information regarding mental illness, statistics, signs and symptoms, and how you can help.
- Talk to professionals – As silly as it sounds, therapists are happy to educate you on the realities of mental illness. Try health fairs or be so daring as to call a professional
- Ask – Talk to a survivor you know. Even asking a few questions to someone with mental illness can help you learn mountains of information. For example, here is my post on how to talk to someone going through depression (Link)
- Check your language – You’ll find that language can be rough and increase distance between mental illness and understanding. Words like “retarded” or “schizo,” can be stigmatizing
- Don’t diagnose – Never, ever, ever, self-diagnose or personally diagnose others. This is always a touchy and controversial topic. Leave the diagnostics to the professionals. We have been trained to know the differences between sadness and depression, or cleanliness and obsessive compulsive disorder. Self-diagnosing or personal diagnosing can minimize the real pain of others, and keep them from seeking appropriate help.
- Stand up – Finally, stand up and be counted. Be the person who stands up for mental illness. If it is safe to do so, gently correct others on their own language or misinformation.
We are here to be helpful. We are here to be caring. We are here to be free of stigma. Just one question remains…
How many chains are you willing to unlock?