The Mental Illness Stigma: Which side are you on?

As I spend more time communicating with people who struggle with mental illness, I hear more and more complaints about “the stigma.”  On the other hand, I also hear about the struggle that “normal” people have with that same stigma. There are two sides to the story.  Two sides of the fence.

The stigma is separating us.  The stigma is dangerous.

fence

Let me introduce you to both sides of the stigma-fence.

Side A: “Normal people”
These are the people that have not experienced a chronic mental illness.  For the most part, they are uneducated and unaware when it comes to mental illness.  Except for what they have seen on tv and other media.  This is also our culture today.  (No, I am not speaking for every individual person, just the majority.)

Side A has a big sign on their side and this is what it says:

Mental illness is not real.
Mental illness is not the same as a physical illness.
Mental illness is not an excuse to get out of work or school.
Medication fixes all mental illness.
Psychotherapy fixes all mental illness.
People with mental illness just need to try harder.
People with mental illness should be in a mental hospital.
People with mental illness can just “choose” to be happy.
People who kill themselves are selfish and weak.
People who hurt themselves are selfish and weak.
People with mental illness are scary.
People who commit suicide just want attention.
If you are not in a mental hospital, you should be fine.
Parents are to blame if their child has a mental illness or commits suicide.

Side B: People who have a mental illness
These are the people who have or currently experience a chronic mental illness.  For the most part, they try to help themselves, fix themselves, and hide themselves.  They are ashamed that they are different.  (No, I am not speaking for every individual person, just the majority.)

Side B has a big sign on their side and this is what it says:
Nobody cares.
Nobody believes me.
Nobody is helping me.
Nobody understands.
I am broken.
I will never fit in.
I should try harder.
I should do better.
It’s my fault that I am this way.
I put this on myself when I sinned.
God will never forgive me.
I am cursed.
Why can’t I just be normal?
Will this pain ever end?
Am I invisible?
Can nobody see my pain?
I can’t do this alone.

We distrust each other.  We don’t know what to do.

Here is my quick little stigma-parable…

drowning

Imagine that an adult is drowning and calling to the lifeguard for help.  He looks up to the lifeguard, but the lifeguard doesn’t see him.  He drowns.
In reality, the lifeguard didn’t know that the man was drowning, because the man wasn’t screaming for help. Plus, the lifeguard assumed that the man knew how to swim, because he was in the deep end of the pool.
We blame each other.
A: The man should have called for help, right?  Or made some sort of indication that he needed help.
B: But his lungs were already filled with water. He couldn’t scream. He was never taught how to swim.
B: The lifeguard should have seen that he was struggling.
A: The man shouldn’t have gone to the pool if he didn’t know how to swim.  He should know better.
B: The man was forced into the pool, simply by being alive.  It’s not his fault that nobody taught him how to swim.

What if…
We stop blaming each other and start loving each other, regardless of our mistakes.
We educated ourselves, so that there can be more than one lifeguard on duty.
We accepted that some people are better swimmers than others.
We kept an eye out for those who struggle, ready to support them, not shame them.
We learn from our mistakes.

I propose we do away with the fence and work together.  Instead of standing by helplessly as our friends and family members are incarcerated, homeless, wasting away, and killing themselves.

In order to erase this stigma, we need to start communicating with one another and educating ourselves.  We need to start supporting, loving, and forgiving each other.

pexels-photo-89806

In a stigma-free world, this is what the signs would read:

Side A:
We are here for you.
We are sorry that you are in pain.
What can we do to help you?
How can I make things easier for you?
Can you help me understand what you are going through?
I love you.
I forgive you.
I can see that you are in pain.
I can see that you are struggling.
It’s okay that we are different.
Nobody is perfect.
Can we take down the fence?
Will you let me help you?

Side B:
I need help.
I need love.
I need forgiveness.
I need you to see past my body.
I need you to see past my failures and successes.
I need to know that you are here for me.
I need to know that there is light in the darkness.
I need to know that there is refuge from this storm.
I need to know that you won’t judge me.
I need to know that you won’t walk away from me.
I need to know that you don’t think less of me.
I need to know that you care.
That you hear me.
That you see me.
That you believe me.
Please don’t assume that I am okay just because I look okay.
Don’t be afraid to talk to me about my mental illness.
Don’t be afraid to offer help, even if I’m not asking for it.
I’m sorry I can’t do more for you.
I’m sorry I can’t always be there for you.
I’m sorry I can’t just function like you.
Can we take down the fence?
Help me help myself. Please.

Whatever side of the fence you are on, it really doesn’t matter.  Let’s tear it down together.

What you can do to help:
1. Educate yourself about mental illness
2. Ask for help if you need it
3. Love and support those around you
4. Share this post!

Some good sites to learn about mental illness and ways you can help end the stigma…
https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml
https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions
https://afsp.org/
http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Youth_Resources/Learning_About_Mental_Illness/Home.aspx
https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health/index.html


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