Oh stigma, how you hurt me and countless unnamed others. How you break our hearts. I wonder how people with a skin color other than white ever survived the Pre-Civil Rights era. Not that racism is over now by any means, but having a mental illness has never been acceptable. Not even in the year 2014.
Someone who has bipolar disorder is not, “bipolar,” implying that they are nothing more than their illness, or constantly moody, always fluctuating between up and down and never experiencing anything in between. Would you talk about someone who has cancer and look down on them and say that they’re cancerous? Would you say, “She’s heart diseased” or “He’s tumored” as though he or she IS their physical illness and nothing else? That would be horribly wrong, and very sad. Would you miss out on getting to know someone because her heart had a defect? Mental illness IS a physical illness. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Your brain is an organ, just like your liver or your heart, and can have times where it doesn’t function properly, just like any other organ. In most cases, mental illness is extremely treatable with medication, just like any other physical illness.
Having a mental illness does not mean that someone is “crazy” or “psycho” or “insert horrible word here.” As someone who has a diagnosable mental illness, I experience stigma all of the time. I hear it in conversations with people, I watch it on tv shows, in movies, or read about / see it on the news. I try to let it roll off my back and chalk it up to ignorance, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. I’m a human being.
I held back tears last night and all day today. After shutting off a tv show that I’d heard the words above on last night, I tried to watch a movie on Netflix that friends said they had seen called, “The Wedding Guest.” What I did not know was that the wedding guest in this movie was a young woman who had suffered from a mental illness for years. The guy who brought her to the wedding had been court ordered to do community service hours as a janitor in a psychiatric facility, and the psychiatrist there told him not to interact with his patients because they were psychotic, catatonic, and delusional. By the way the psychiatrist was talking about his patients, and by the tone of voice he was using, you could tell that he thought they were hopeless cases that were not even human beings. I turned off the movie. I went to bed in a saddened state after my evening of watching stigma occur, and picked up a Christian book I had just purchased about hearing God’s voice in the decisions that we make. One of the first examples was about a woman who had been divorced before who had met another man and married him who thought she had heard from God that he was the right man to marry and the spiritual leader she was looking for, but, [GASP], he started sleeping 12 hours a day and she [GASP] found out he was a manic depressive! She separated from him, because his being a manic depressive was bad for her health, and the book went on to say that wasn’t the worst of it! He told her later he wanted to fix their marriage and asked her to go to counselling, but when she realized he wasn’t going to change, she left him for good. The book did a good job of implying that this woman hadn’t heard from God…because she married someone with manic depression… WOW! It was a horribly stigma-filled evening.
Being a Christian, I honestly have found that the most stigma about mental illness actually occurs within the Christian community, which breaks my heart. Doesn’t the Bible say, “In sickness and in health?” If mental illness is a sickness, then why did this author and many others imply that it is grounds for divorce? Whenever I let my guard down to give my testimony about what I've been through and how God has used my mental illness, people come up to my husband when I’m not around and thank him for being a man of God. Many say, “I’m surprised you guys are still together.” REALLY? If a woman stood up in church and talked about how she had heart disease, or a man (in fact a missionary spoke about this at our church recently) spoke about having a stroke, would people go up to their spouse in private and thank them for being a man or woman of God and tell them, “I’m surprised you guys are still together?” Andy sometimes just responds with, “Why? It’s an illness like any other illness.” Then, people say, “Oh.” If this is happening to us, then I know it is happening to so many other couples. Stigma.
Writing about this is really difficult, because I open myself up to further scrutiny, or people asking me if I’m ok because I wrote this, or thinking that “woe is me” is my mantra of the day. I am not writing about this for me, just like Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t speak out about racism for himself (not that I in any way shape or form am comparing myself to this great man of history). I am writing this because we need to erase the stigma. Erase it from our lips and the lips of others. Erase it from our tv shows, movies, newspapers, and tv news programs. Erase it from our churches. I, nor am anyone else, bipolar. I HAVE bipolar disorder, which is simply a chemical imbalance of the brain. My illness is treatable, as is mental illness in others. I am not crazy. I could be your sister, your mother, your neighbor, your political official, your mom, or your mother-in-law. I could be YOU. One in 4 Canadians will have a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives.
Please repost. Let’s use education about mental illness to erase stigma and spread compassion.
How have you been affected by stigma?