Thoughts on Mental Illness and Stigma

Pre-emptive disclaimer: It’s been a very fraught fortnight so please bear with me with this post. It’s the first time I’ve tried to write anything since our family was plunged into panic.

When I first wrote about my struggles with mental illness, a lot of people told me how brave I was. Not for surviving, but for talking about it. No one has ever congratulated me on my bravery for writing about my physical illness. They have congratulated me for surviving, but never just for talking about it. That’s because talking about physical illness is not dangerous, or at least, not in the same way that it is for talking about mental illness.

No one is suddenly going to fear me because my spine has problems. They are not going to wonder if I pose a threat to them, or others, because my leg muscles have atrophied. No one wears a “chronic illness rehabilitation centre patient” costumer for Halloween, and there are not countless horror films about a person with chronic illness stabbing teens who are out camping in the woods because their rheumatoid arthritis is playing them up. There are no horror mazes based on patients taking over the general medical unit.

Talking about mental illness can risk friendships, it can damage career prospects, and it can lose you the respect of your peers. Talking about mental illness can risk you becoming bullied. Talking about mental illness is therefore a difficult and daunting thing to do. I have written about my struggles with mental illness, but there are only a handful of friends I have actually spoken to about it, and most of their reactions were platitudinous, involving telling me to “cheer up” or instructing me on obvious but impossible solutions.

A fortnight ago a member of my family disappeared whilst seriously unwell with mental illness. Knowing he was at severe risk I had to decide whether to risk his privacy by sending his image out into the ether with the message that he was missing and we urgently needed to find him. His picture was shared thousands of times and even appeared in local papers. Thankfully it paid off, he was found after someone recognised him, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all those who shared his picture. He is now in a psychiatric unit, where he is receiving treatment, and he believes I did the right thing.

He has been purposefully vague about his mental illness in the past, having experienced poor treatment when he has been open about it with employers. Twice he has been the victim of constructive dismissal, with numerous references made to his mental health despite there being no impact upon his work. When he gets out of hospital he will have to face the fact that friends, colleagues and clients now know he suffers from mental illness. He’s planning to face this head on and point at the elephant in the room, but despite the lovely messages he has received from those who know him, I’m aware this will not be easy for him. Speaking out against the stigmas attached to your conditions is never easy.

After returning to school the weekend after our relative disappeared my son was petrified of what his peers might say. He has experienced ableist bullying before because I’m a wheelchair user and he knows there is an even greater stigma attached to mental illness. Thankfully, he’s only received one comment so far, but I wonder how many people who perpetuate these harmful stereotypes ever stop to consider not just those who suffer from mental illness, but also those who love them, including children.

Yesterday was #TimeToTalk when people with mental illness are encouraged to speak up about what happens to them in order to break down the stigma. However, #TimeToTalk can only ever be effective if the counterpoint to that is #TimeToListen. Mentally ill people neither created nor perpetuated the stigma attached to them. They, therefore, cannot be held solely accountable for breaking that stigma down. Talking about mental illness remains potentially dangerous whether we are told to talk or not. We cannot talk if those who we need to listen will continue to attack and marginalise. It needs to become the responsibility of well people to educate themselves, so that they can begin to refute stereotypes, and demand that the stigma be removed. Once that has happened then I truly will believe that it’s time to talk, because then talking will no longer be a risk.

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