By Alison Cervoj
I want to talk to you about stigma, and at the same time share part of my experience of mental illness and continual recovery, which comes complete with the occasional relapse. We need to talk about mental illness to help to end the stigma.
What bothers me most about mental health and mental illness is the stigma that comes with it. People, the general public and health professionals alike, seem to get cautious of other people after finding out that they have problems. I have on many occasions felt a shift in the way people have treated me when they find out. It’s like they don’t know what to say or do. They don’t understand that nothing has changed. I am still the same person underneath my illness.
The Early Days
I started experiencing mental health problems in my early teens, though at the time I didn’t recognise that was what it was. I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal, that not everyone felt this way, and I didn’t know it was something that I could get help for. Being bullied to various degrees throughout high school also didn’t help the situation. I just thought I was a weird social outcast and that was it.
A very good friend, one of the very few people I trusted to talk to, eventually put me onto a group that counsels children and teens. And so at seventeen years old, my journey into the mental health system began. It wasn’t long before I was diagnosed with depression and put on my first lot of medication. I was later diagnosed with general anxiety, social anxiety and borderline personality disorder, which I’m told no longer applies so I guess that makes me a recovered borderline.
Stigma and Medical Professionals
Since then, I have seen many different counsellors, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and other health care professionals. Some of them were excellent and treated me with great care and compassion, but others were terrible and treated me as a waste of time. They were uncaring and just plain rude. Some of these so-called professionals even held high positions in the mental health care field. Much of the negative response I have experienced surrounds my self-harm which I have struggled with on and off since I was sixteen. That’s half my life.
I have had some doctors overreact to my self-harm and threaten me with involuntary hospitalisation and other things because they don’t understand mental illness. They don’t understand that self-harm does not equal wanting to die, in fact it is quite the opposite. Self-harm is an act of survival. It is a way to cope. Granted it’s an unhealthy way, but sometimes it’s all we have. Self-harm is a way to release emotions that are much bigger than we can handle. It’s a way of coping and getting through the day so we can start again tomorrow. Because of some negative reactions I have received from the medical community I am now far more reluctant to seek help for wounds which I know need more than just a band aid, and it shouldn’t be this way.
I have had nurses look at my wounds and angrily ask me, “What did you do that for?”, roughly bandage it and walk away, like I was using up too much of their time when they could be caring for people who are ‘really’ sick. Like I have a choice in the matter, like I chose to be this way. No one would choose this. They don’t understand that I am ‘really’ sick. I have an illness the same as the patient in the next room. The only difference is you can’t see my illness from the outside.
Stigma and Friends
I have had people who I thought were friends back away the moment they find out I live with mental illness or I start to relapse. When I start going downhill people either don’t want to deal with it or they don’t know how. Perhaps they are afraid of making it worse and try to give me space. I really don’t know. Again, I believe a lot of this comes down to a lack of knowledge and understanding.
I know I can sometimes be difficult when my illness takes hold. I know I am not always the most pleasant person to be around. But when I start retreating into myself and letting the irrational thoughts take over, this is usually the time when I need people most, whether I’m ready to admit it or not. This is when I need compassion, understanding and patience, and I know that it’s not easy on the people around me. I don’t like being this way but I am. I am trying to get better but sometimes it all becomes too much and I need people to be with me until I can pull myself back up again.
Stigma and Suicide
The subject of suicide and suicidal ideation is also one that carries a lot of stigma and misunderstanding. People are afraid to talk about suicide. Perhaps they’re afraid of putting ideas in people’s heads, which believe me it won’t, or maybe they just feel too uncomfortable talking about something so serious. This needs to change.
Over the years I have often thought of suicide but only once, many years ago when I was first diagnosed, has it ever gone as far as actually making a plan and following through. Even though I think about suicide, I don’t actually want to die. I know this is a difficult one for people to understand. When I get to this stage I don’t usually tell people because it is hard on them, but when I do, what I usually need is to just vent and have a shoulder to cry on. Someone to listen and hear that I am struggling, and be there. I don’t need advice or to be whisked off to the nearest psych ward. I just need to get everything out and after that I usually feel a little better and the thoughts subside.
This, however, does not mean that we should not take people seriously when they talk, or even hint at suicide. Absolutely we should. And people should not be afraid to ask the tough questions directly. Ask them if they want to commit suicide. Ask them specifically if they have any plans and the means to follow through with those plans. Stay with the person, listen and direct them to and get them the necessary help. Don’t be afraid to have the conversation.
Stigma and the Media
I feel the media has some responsibility to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness. Many news reports label criminals as mentally unstable or having a mental illness of some kind. While this may be true for some, it is generally not the case. In fact, those suffering with mental illness are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than anyone else.
Movies and television shows also portray mental illness in an over-dramatised and often inaccurate manner, which doesn’t help to end the stigma. People need to remember that these shows are made for our entertainment and are often unrealistic compared to what people with mental illness really experience on a day to day basis.
The Good People
Among all the bad and negative experience there is always some good. Some of the most compassionate and understanding people in my life are some of the most unexpected people. An ambulance transport officer who sat with me in the back of the ambulance on a two hour journey to the hospital while I cried and hyperventilated has become one of my closest friends. The gymnastics coach who held classes for me despite the fact that I was the only one that turned up didn’t push me to do things I couldn’t do, and understood when I needed time out. The couple of parents at my children’s school who have offered to help out on the days that I am struggling and actually followed through.
Talking about mental illness is the only way anything is going to get better. So let’s end the stigma, let’s start a conversation, let’s talk to each other about the tough stuff until it’s not so tough anymore. Let’s start learning and understanding. There are several websites and organisations around that are already doing a great job in getting the discussion started by allowing people to share their stories, but there needs to be more of it. We all need to be talking at work, at school, to our friends and neighbours, to help end the stigma.
We need to spread the message. There is nothing wrong with having a mental illness just like there is nothing wrong with having diabetes. Just like there is treatment for physical illness, there is treatment for mental illness. Having a mental illness does not make a person bad or inferior, it makes them human. Statistics say that 45% of the population will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. So why is it still treated with such secrecy and shame? You wouldn’t shy away from someone with diabetes or a broken leg. Why is a physical illness any different from a mental illness? After all, mental illness is no different; it is simply an illness of the brain.
Reproduced with permission, originally published here