I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. It’s something new for me, it seems to help keep me focused, in my body and out of my head. They’ve generally been on topics like emotions, communication, philosophy, love, mental health, social work, and stigma. The latter is a massively burgeoning topic right now, thankfully, as it absolutely needs to be discussed everywhere possible all the time if we’re going to have any chance at cracking down on it and getting it the hell out of the mental health community where it does nothing but harm. The dictionary definition of stigma: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Living with mental illness is tough enough as it is, no one who is suffering needs or deserves that shit.
If there’s been one overarching theme I’ve noticed behind a majority of the topics I’ve been listening to, it’s bringing forth real measurable change and progress through banding together, talking, loving our fellow man, being open and equanimous; what can best be described as community: “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of having a particular characteristic in common, sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” Everyone needs this in one way or another. To be human is to commune. People need other people, more specifically people with whom we share common ground. Especially when it’s a highly stigmatized ground we stand on. I say let’s stand together!
I’m probably going to wind up hyping up the value of community in future posts til I’m blue in the face. To be honest I could always sense that something integral was missing from the fight against stigma but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was so perfectly summed up in one encompassing word. All the podcasts I’ve let into my head lately have done a wonderful job of really cementing upstairs for me how fundamental community is as a huge catalyst for change and progress on any facet of life. Good thing is that it’s a pretty simple notion; it’s all about coming together, loving, celebrating and accepting each other as we are, lending a hand or an ear or a resource, letting go of the pretense. Rather than an individualistic, shame-ridden silent suffering, it’s about a collectively proud, boisterous effort to bring forth change for the better.
I personally take pride in my ability to stand up in front of 1 or 100 people and say I have depression, anxiety and ADHD because the fact is, I’m still standing. I’m a survivor, I beat the odds. I’m proof positive people can live with mental illness and actually thrive under the right care and support. But those are exactly what’s missing from the fight against stigma– proper care and support. As well as community, acceptance, and the freedom from stigma. Love is missing. Let’s call mental health stigma what it really is: discrimination. When was the last time you saw a person who felt too stigmatized to admit they are afflicted with something like cancer or diabetes? Why is it any different for those battling mental illness? How do we change that landscape? We build community around it; there’s power, strength, and resolve in numbers!
We not only need to rally together around the topic of mental illness, need to talk about it. Your actions could make someone’s day and your story could save someone’s life. Having feelings is not wrong, it’s not a sign of weakness. Just as the need to commune is human, so is the need to emote. I don’t care who you are, what you come from, or how hard you’ve become, you’re still human. Shining a light on the topic is the entry to the path of healing. It creates much needed hope that there is a solution to a problem that’s been rampant yet stifled for too long. Untreated mental illness kills people. I’d be willing to bet you know someone who’s been adversely affected by it, or you at least know someone who knows someone who has. 1 in 4 Americans deals with some form of mental illness, it’s all around us every day. Yet 56% of those people go untreated. It’s time to get real about this and stop treating it like the black sheep of the litany of illnesses that humans endure.
It’s time to officially throw out the old ideals of “it can’t happen to me, mentally ill are those on the street corner talking to themselves, just get over it, it’s only the blues, not in my family, not in my culture, what about my pride, my image, no no no not me”. It can happen to you, it quite frequently happens to those around you as well, and there’s no shame in it. Simply stated– we want to stay in good physical health so we regularly see the doctor for checkups and as needed for symptoms. Why wouldn’t you treat your mental and emotional bodies with the same respect? That’s really all it should boil down to but we’ve baked it into this monster of a thing that people are too afraid to cop to and continue to treat it as such.
Mental disorders are not adjectives. The stigmatizing words need to go, their heyday is over. “Crazy”, “mental”, “insane”, “psycho”, “nuts”, etc., they’re all total pejoratives when applied to those facing mental health issues and wholeheartedly perpetuate the stigma. We need a shift in the context of the language we use. Instead of appropriating these words and casually throwing them around when referring to those with mental illness, much like we don’t use the word “retard” anymore (beside the fact that it’s totally inappropriate and offensive), we need to be more aware of and sensitive toward the words we use. The best, most instantaneous thing you can do right now is to lead by example.
Years ago when I was unknowingly a little too forthcoming about my challenges with people who weren’t ready, willing or able to be kindly receptive, I remember telling a guy I’d been seeing for a while that I dealt with depression. His response “oh, does that mean you’re going to lose it and go crazy on me?”. Whether he meant it as a joke or was genuinely curious what that meant for him, to me it was rife with ignorance and stigma and I quietly released him from my social life. Comments like his made me realize exactly how much work there was and still is to be done in the effort to overcome stigma. I’ll never forget that instance though, and who knows where he was coming from, maybe he’d previously had a bad experience with a girl in regards to mental health. However, just because he judged me didn’t mean I was going to return it.
I’ve been called all sorts of things along my path to wellness. When you’re too afraid to open up about what you’re facing, people are free to draw their own conclusions and as such I’ve been labeled lazy or self-involved or maladjusted. Even when I did come out to those I thought I could trust, for example when I fessed up to my boss at work many years ago I was called a burden, or admitted my struggles to people who I thought were friends I was deemed as misguided or flaky. Surely I’ve been called crazy behind my back plenty of times over the years I struggled the most. But these are all views that are again, riddled with ignorance and stigma. When we watch how we speak about and regard one another, each individual choice of words can be a drop in the bucket of breaking down the stigma on mental health.
When I look at someone who is visibly struggling with any sort of mental illness in any sense, I don’t see “crazy” or “nuts”. I see pain, or PTSD, or what has probably been a really rough and harrowing ride in life for them trying to work its way out. I see an intense, acute need for healing, care, love, acceptance and safety. We all want and need those things. I personally think the only reason behind someone stigmatizing another is because they’re simply unfamiliar with the other person’s experience and it makes them feel safer to distance themselves from that person by stigmatizing them. If only we could reprogram society to think and act oppositely of that, it would by default create more cohesiveness and community, one non-judgmental, kind action at a time.
We need to make this a priority, everyone needs to be an advocate. If you hear someone saying something crass or stigmatizing, or acting out of judgement or ignorance toward someone with mental health challenges, say something. If you see someone acting out of character, or strange, instead of viewing them through the lens of judgement and shame and casting them off, try and see through their behavior to what is more than likely underlying pain, trauma and a need for healing. If you saw someone trip and fall on the street you wouldn’t automatically assume they were drunk, in fact you’d probably try and help them up and make sure they’re ok. Don’t assume that because someone’s behavior doesn’t fall within the spectrum of what’s perceived as “normal”, that they deserve to be judged. More often than not it’s a cry for help.
If you’re curious as to how you can do your part, check out this article from the National Alliance on Mental Illness on 9 ways to fight mental health stigma, and keep on fighting the good fight one word, action, or thought at a time. We’ve got a long way to go.
Peace, love, and wellness.