Throughout the history of humanity, we have consistently shown a remarkable ability to ostracize the marginalized. Each society has their own specialty. Whilst some are good at looking after the poor, they hurtfully discriminate against religious minorities. Others welcome religious groups, but despise the poor. Every people group seems to have a form of prejudice that they excel at. Human beings, in our broken nature, seem to be specialists at marginalizing the vulnerable.
Those with mental illnesses certainly fall into the category of being marginalized. I can’t speak for history, but in our day and age stigmatizing mental illness is a damaging and surreptitious mainstay. It quietly works in the background, ensuring that people have more miserable lives than they need to. It stops people going to get medical help, it makes people feel guilt and shame for being ill, and it ultimately contributes to suicides. This is a subtle and serious issue, and something which you and I are both adding to.
Growing up I never thought that I was adding to the stigma, but I was. I didn’t realise how hurtful my vocabulary and my actions were, even though I had good intentions. I wasn’t humble enough to think that my actions could be hurtful to the people suffering. I didn’t find out until I left school that many of my classmates struggled with mental illnesses. It is a common tribulation, which I was making much worse.
The frustrating reality is that I still catch myself adding to it. I still catch myself buying into lies which culture perpetuates through stigma. Looking back on my life, I see that so many people have contributed to this, including myself and my loved ones. We don’t mean to, but stigma is everywhere. Because society actively spreads stigma, we need to actively fight back. Any passive stance will perpetuate the stigma. Unless we are actively fighting stigma, we are actively accepting it.
But I am not affected it by it right?
I remember at my school’s seminars, I learned that depression was a real psychosomatic illness. I remember that you are supposed to exercise and not feel bad about having it. What I remember most is how pointless I felt those seminars were and how I just wanted to be outside hanging out with my friends.
But I was wrong, the seminars helped me recognize depression when it hit me. After a month of feeling desperately sad I put together the pieces. The lack of energy, the despair, the loneliness, probably depression. But I knew I was too strong for depression. Foolishly, I prided myself in my mental resilience and prowess. I had an amazing brain and was a tough cookie when it came to emotions, even depression couldn’t bother me.
I knew that I was stronger than others and that I could get myself through this. I knew that I could will-away the depression with positive thoughts. I knew that depression was for the weak and that I was strong. It only took me a few years to realise how badly these lies hurt.
I was scared to admit to myself that I had depression. I knew what it was for months, but kept ignoring it. I was scared to admit I was weak and was determined to toughen up. Of course, I knew depression was a legitimate illness, but still it was one I could easily defeat. I just needed to focus and work harder.
Every day, I became more isolated, drifting further away from others. I started to despise most things in life, including most people I knew. On the outside I looked normal, even cheerful. One of my friends commented at the time “you are such a happy person, I can’t even imagine you sad.” This was around the time where most of my thoughts tended to be about punching other people in the face. I grew increasingly frustrated by them. How could they all be so ignorant and insensitive? At least that is how my mind interpreted these situations.
This was the worst time of my life. Every day I wanted to die. I longingly wished for a car to swerve off the road and end my misery. I knew that God wouldn’t want me to commit suicide, so I didn’t. But I hoped every day that I would be killed by someone else so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about that too. The pain, anger, sorrow, and despair were unimaginable prior to becoming ill. I fantasized about dying, but had to resort to scraping through on what felt a pathetic existence. One full of so much agony, with no hope in sight. I had given up on things ever getting better and had resigned myself to a hellish slog for my remaining days.
But it was doable, right? Depression was just an illness for the weak. I knew I could beat this just by trying harder and being stronger. I loved a challenge, and this was just a much tougher one than any I had faced before. I could keep up the persona of being alright and eventually my emotions would catch up. Eventually, I could power through it. That is what people do right?
It took me 6 months of knowing I had an illness before I went to the doctor. I knew what the illness was; I knew that there was effective medicine, but I didn’t go. This might seem crazy. Could you imagine knowing that you had an illness, knowing there was a cure, and still not going to the doctor? Bear in mind this wasn’t something that made a small impact on my life. This made every day a putrid existence.
Most people take years before they get to the doctor, I was one of the fortunate ones. Why do those of us suffering wait years before going to see the doctor? Why didn’t I go and get help for it sooner? Hopefully, the passage above gives some insight into that. I didn’t properly understand what depression was. I grew up not having a healthy picture of what mental illnesses were like or how they affected people. In a word, stigma. It made my life far worse than it had to be, an experience virtually all people with mental illnesses share.
A lot of people I know are told not to go to seek professional help for their mental illness. There is widespread stigma that people are actively telling people not to seek the help they need. Why bother wasting the time of a medical professional if it isn’t a proper illness, right? Why bother wasting money? Heaven help us if these illnesses were real, and not just the symptom of emotional weakness, right? Hopefully, we can all see how ridiculous this is. What sort of message does this send to people who are having a terrible time of it? Particularly those who are suicidal.
Like most people reading this, I would not have thought of myself as someone who contributes to the stigma of mental illnesses and those suffering from them. But this is the reality of being in the marginalized people group. It is the same with race/sexuality/poverty etc. Whoever is in the marginalized group will have a hard time having their voice heard. Whoever is in the other camp will have a hard time listening to their voice. If we are ever in the majority or in power, we must humbly give those who aren’t the benefit of the doubt always. I should have done this with mental illnesses, but can only see the consequences now that I am on the receiving end of my attitude.
What is stigma?
Essentially, stigma is caused by a negative misunderstanding of something. This creates attitudes and actions that ascribe negative attributes to something or someone. In the case of me growing up, I thought depression was a sign of weakness (from this I thought those suffering must be weak). Something that people suffered from if they weren’t positive enough. Other common misconceptions with depression are things like people with depression are lazy, they just want attention, they just don’t try enough. These lies have caused me and others a lot of pain.
I have heard people say all of these things, some of them about me, and some about other people. If you want to invalidate someone who is struggling with a mental illness and make them feel worthless I would recommend these phrases and attitudes. It worked flawlessly on me and many others I know.
The reality is that stigma exists and it is very damaging. I didn’t go for help when I should have. In a more perfect world I would have told my friends and family as soon as I started to struggle. I would have gone to counseling and I would have seen a doctor immediately. One significant reason why I didn’t was stigma. If I wasn’t so set on serving God I would have killed myself years ago. I don’t say this flippantly, the stigma around depression would have contributed to my suicide. This is a serious issue and I am aware that not everyone is as fortunate as I am.
For the most part it happens in simple and subtle ways. It isn’t something that we consciously seek to do, but we nail it regardless. A good example of this is talking about crazy people. Before I struggled with mental illnesses, the answer to the question, “what are ‘crazy’ people like,” would have been straightforward. Whilst I couldn’t give you the ins and outs of it all, I knew I wasn’t one of them. I knew that I could probably spot a ‘psycho’ a mile away. I was one of the normal ones.
In a cruel twist of fate, I am now the one who is mentally ill. Am I crazy? Every time I see the doctor he asks me if I think I can fly. He asks me if I hear voices (I don’t for either of those questions). Even now it can be so easy for me to slip into this mentality of, “well at least I am not totally crazy.” I am not psychotic, but I know people who are or have been. They aren’t people who I would have put in my ‘crazy’ category years ago. I am talking about the type of person who seems totally normal most of the time to most people. Most friends and family wouldn’t even know.
If someone is psychotic and/or sociopathic they are often referred to as a ‘psycho.’ If someone hears voices they are a ‘schizophrenic.’ But why isn’t the person with the flu called a ‘fluey?’ In all these cases someone is struggling with an illness, yet people with the flu don’t suffer from stigma. It scrapes away people’s identity and tries to paint on a non-descript persona with far less dignity. The subtle nature of it makes it easy to slip into. Whilst there are clear differences between the flu and mental illnesses, I want us to see how we have a damaging response to one, and not the other.
A daily struggle
Whilst it is hard to articulate what stigma is and how it affects people suffering from mental illnesses, I want to try. It is real and it does do a lot of damage. I remember having a conversation with a church leader who doesn’t have a mental illness. Whilst discussing the topic of mental illnesses I remember him almost scoffing and saying, “there’s not still stigma.” It wasn’t a question. I was being told what to think instead of being listened to. But he was wrong, there is stigma, and me starting this blog has reminded me of that.
I started this blog to encourage people. At first it was because I wanted to help people who had also suffered from mental illnesses. I had found it extremely helpful when others had articulated my suffering in their experience. They had given me a voice, and I wanted to pass that on. I wanted to help raise awareness and encourage others that we are not suffering alone. In the midst of this, I have always strived to only write things which are true psychologically and spiritually.
How could you complain right? If this was a blog about breaking a leg people probably wouldn’t have said anything. The reality is that not everyone has liked my blog, which is fair enough. I have had a lot of criticism, which is fine. This could happen if I wrote a blog about breaking a leg (in fact, my teachers at school excelled at this regardless of the topic!). However, breaking a leg doesn’t carry the same damaging stigma that mental illnesses do.
I think the first push back was people who thought I should be more positive. They would dismiss my blog as a bit unnecessary because people with depression just need to be happier. A blog that shares stories about depression only encourages other people to feel depressed. You would never receive this response about people breaking bones (well, there are some people…).
Another way in which people have been critical about my blog is that they are worried that people will take depression too seriously if I talk about it on my blog. If someone hasn’t experienced a mental illness it can be easy for them to think that people who are struggling with these illnesses are just being lazy. Or that they are wallowing in self-pity and need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. People in this camp are particularly critical when I say things like “if someone is mentally ill it is everyone’s problem.” They think that that the person suffering needs to deal with it and outside help will stop the person taking ownership of their own struggles.
This second criticism is ridiculous. If someone had a broken leg no one would ever stop opening doors for them or giving them lifts places because they need to pull themselves together. Whenever I have been on crutches people have been brilliant at helping me in littles ways, opening doors, carrying my stuff, pretending my crutches are toys etc. However, some of these same people don’t see mental illnesses as a big enough burden to share with others.
One final way I will mention that people have criticized my blog is that it talks about mental illnesses. This third group isn’t scared to talk about mental illnesses, they just don’t think they exist. I have got messages from people that I don’t know talking about how my blog doesn’t really make sense. People have told me that being sad isn’t a mental illness and that depression isn’t real. People have told me that mental illnesses are people just struggling from demon possession (although, that would explain the horns which have been growing out of my head). Alternatively, people have told me that mental illnesses are not real and I am suffering from some sort of spiritual deficiency.
This view is so bizarre that I find it hard to blame the people who think this. Some of these people are total strangers who only know me through the blog and my first thought is pity more than anything else. I am not sure if that is right, but I feel sorry that they have been taught these lies (have you not seen the library of readily available medical evidence!?!). The worst part about this part is that when these lies spread they can cause incalculable damage to those suffering. I am talking in terms of human life here. Feeling worthless and then being made to feel like it is your fault through lies is not exactly going to steer people away from suicide.
Stigma feels terrible. Imagine the following scenario. You break your femur in two and the doctor examining you tells you to toughen up and go for a walk. How would you feel? I think I would feel angry and shocked. He wasn’t listening to my pain and misdiagnosed. I would also feel frustrated and demeaned. It would be ‘unreasonable’ and cause a lot of pain for the doctor to do this. But some doctors (even some psychiatrists and other mental illness specialists) do this to people with mental illnesses (although some are awesome. If you have a mental illness you NEED to see a doctor about it).
This has happened to me and to many others. I went to the doctor once because I was quite ill. I was moving slowly, shaking lots, and struggling to speak when there were people around. These were very strong somatic symptoms, in fact neurologists and psychiatrists I have seen have confirmed that depression doesn’t cause these. When I went to the GP about it I started giving him my history (it was a quick appointment, so I couldn’t get my usual doctor). As I stumbled through the words I mentioned I had had depression and he instantly interrupted me. He accused me of wasting his time and told me that depression was a long-term illness and I shouldn’t be making these appointments for it.
I wasn’t even there for depression, but as soon as I said it he turned off. He interrupted me and sent me away. I was struggling to speak at the time so couldn’t correct him. Those who know me are aware that usually I am very quick with snappy responses, but I couldn’t manage it physically. I left the office feeling worthless. I had been told my problems weren’t real. I had been told my suffering wasn’t worth his time. I left the office wanting to kill him. For those of you wondering, I am not writing this from jail. I decided to leave and distract myself for the next few hours instead of letting my anger fester.
Stigma is rife everywhere. It is in schools, it is in the church, and it is still pervasive among the professionals who are meant to understand it and help us. Unless we actively fight it, we are actively accepting it. This includes me.
I really wish I could say that I am above this now, but it is so entrenched in who I am that I still perpetuate stigma. I have been going to a neurologist and getting my brain tested to investigate a potential link between concussions I have had and my mental health problems. The neurologist suspected some sort of atypical epilepsy which would cause seizures and depression (and would have caused the couple of episodes when I can’t walk). Whilst depression may be one of the more stigmatized mental illnesses, seizures aren’t. In a sense, it is the acceptable problem. Anyone who has witnessed someone have a fit or a full body seizure tends to view this as a more serious and acceptable issue.
I found myself wanting to be diagnosed with epilepsy because then I could tell people I was having seizures. That seems much more desirable to me than telling people I have depression. Telling people that the doctors think I may have seizures gets a much better reaction (thanks, stigma). They take me a lot more seriously and seem to care more. When I tell someone that I have depression it usually creates a blank or uncomfortable look on their face. They don’t know how to respond.
But there is nothing wrong with having depression. I shouldn’t longingly dream of being diagnosed with other mental illnesses just so I can stop telling people I ‘only’ have depression.
Please help fight the stigma. If you aren’t being active in fighting it, then you are actively accepting it. This is something we all struggle with and something that needs to be fought together as a team. Please share this, please do some reading, and please keep the discussion on mental illnesses going. Probably the best way to end stigma is to humbly seek to learn from those struggling from mental illnesses. Please listen to our voices, our identity is far richer than being mentally ill.
In other news we are hosting a TCK Art Gallery on the blog. The purpose is to help people explore challenging yet necessary concepts through art. Other people can often articulate what we are going through and give us a voice. The theme is ‘Home and Rootlessness.’ For more info check out the Gallery tab and please invite your friends to the Facebook event to help spread the word. The more people that hear about it the better.