the stigma of mental illness

i have lived on the bipolar continuum at least since my early 20s, though it didn’t dawn on me until quite a bit later.

when it finally dawned on me, my first reaction was to laugh at myself: why wouldn’t i be living with a mood disorder, seeing that many of my relatives had struggled with it, as well?

it is only since i have become a member of the canadian mental health association that i have realized why it took me so long. one of the mandates of the CMHA is to de-stigmatize mental illness.

mental illness.

mental illness – that is … oh, what an awful word. people in straightjackets have mental illness! people in those awful, sterile, nightmarish hospitals where i used to visit my father before he swore never to let himself be admitted to one of them again, they are mentally ill.

me, on the other hand, well, i just get into a funk once in a while. feel under the weather. a bit hyper sometimes. you know, normal stuff.

that’s how i used to see mental illness. something that other people have.

yes, i have to confess that. even though i entered the mental health field 17 years ago, even though i’ve spent all my life around people with mental health issues, even though i really think i can be considered someone strongly committed to equality and inclusivity, i still had a lot of discomfort around the idea of mental illness.

in the last little while, i have had the opportunity to learn a bit more about this.

you know how it goes, the most intense learning is learning that we experience ourselves (and often it’s also learning that can be a bit on the painful side – i’m saying that as i’m nodding to ashok, who commented on that a few days ago in my post on learning).

so in november and december, i went through an episode of depression, and two interesting things happened.

on the one hand, i really understood that this was an episode of mental illness. my sense of time, my feelings of self worth, my ability to motivate myself, they all felt – infected, almost. broken. useless. i could almost feel my neurotransmitters behaving in unusual ways. i am very grateful that i have learned as much about mental illness as i have, because it enabled me to tell myself that i needed to treat myself as i would if i had a physical illness. this was progress from before, where i would also recognize that this was an unusual state of mood/neurochemistry, but then i would use it as a reason to dismiss the whole thing – “oh, it’s just the brain acting up again, just soldier on and don’t worry about it.” this time i actually saw it as cause for taking care of myself. (funny that it took me so long to do that – i would never tell a client to just soldier on!)

the other interesting thing that happened was that i realized that i still felt very vulnerable around this – because of the stigmatization.

at one point, a friend left a friendly, breezy little message on my answering machine, saying she’d bring something over that she thought might help with my depression.

i flinched. i was mortified. my depression was on the public space of my answering machine!

that’s when it hit me. if i had had a cold, and she would have said she’d come by and bring me some chicken soup for it, my reaction would not have been mortification but pleasant surprise and gratefulness.

obviously, even though intellectually i am completely opposed to the stigmatization of mental illness, on an emotional level, i’m still struggling with it.

now that the depression is over, i am very grateful for that telephone call. for her concern, for her willingness to help, and for this great learning experience.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

10 thoughts on “the stigma of mental illness

  1. Bonnie Wing

    I think every one of us is mentally ill. After all, what is the norm? We all deviate from it to a certain extent, some of us more than others, some of us more able to hide it than others, some of us taking medication, nutritionals or therapy to keep it at bay, some of us not caring to hide it at all, some of us thinking we ARE normal. Once we can accept that we are NOT normal, and neither is anyone else, the question is not if we are mentally ill, but is “Who will accept us the way we are?”

    We will change if we are able, but in the mean time we need acceptance. Acceptance of our quirks and foibles, of what we were born with, what we were born into, and of what circumstances gave us. Once we have the acceptance of others it is much easier to deal with our illnesses and challenges. Acceptance is one of the best gifts you can give, and you can give it to your parents, your children, your friends, your co-workers, and even to those you don’t know. And it’s free.

    Thank you to those who have made my life more comfortable by not causing me the stress of trying to change the way I am.

  2. isabella mori

    thank you for a beautiful comment, bonnie! you are so right. indeed, yesterday i heard someone say, “the answer to all my problems is acceptance”.

    similar to you, i also believe that we all live on a continuum of mental health, and we all move along that continuum. and, what’s really interesting and somewhat paradoxical: i would say that some people who have diagnoses of mental illnesses can be quite a bit more mentally healthy than those who are not.

    perhaps once one is forced to look into the strange workings of our minds and emotions, there is more awareness, specifically of how precious a serene and accepting outlook on life really is.

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  4. Jamila

    Someone came upon my blog by doing a google search for “stigmatization” mental illness. I tried it to see if my blog came up, it didn’t but i found your blog instead. Hello!

    You said
    “obviously, even though intellectually i am completely opposed to the stigmatization of mental illness, on an emotional level, i’m still struggling with it.”

    I relate to this a great deal. It’s extremely hard for us to come to terms with after years of “exposure” to mental illness, so how hard is it then for people who are never “exposed”?

  5. isabella mori

    good question, jamila. i have two thoughts about this.

    on the one hand, in order to be exposed to something, one has to be open to it. it’s not as if mental illness is rare. it’s everywhere. so it’s possible that a person who is not exposed to it is maybe blind to it.

    on the other hand, we’re all blind to something – indeed, to a lot of things. it’s part of the human condition. so some people are blind to mental illness …

  6. Jamila

    Hi Isabella, wow, that was a quick response!
    I guess people are blind because it’s easier that way, so what I mean is when we are “forced” to open our eyes. When it happens to someone we love, it is no longer an abstract concept. But still it’s hard to get past the stigma. My mother was diagnosed with Bipolar about 13 years ago, but since then the diagnosis has changed to schizophrenia. I have jumped up and down and ranted about “not being ashamed” etc. but when it comes to my own depression, nope there’s nothing wrong with me. I think I’m only just coming to terms with it.

  7. isabella mori

    hello jamila

    a few days after this, i cannot for the life of me what profound (?) thought moved me to talk about what it means to be exposed to mental illness. maybe just sheer tiredness? 🙂

    what you bring up there is similar to my experience. for me it was/is some sort of compartmentalization: e.g. this “other” person has OCD but MY depression is different. and as you say, intellectually i don’t think that way at all but when i really listen to the less rational part of myself, i think that’s what’s happening.

    what i also find quite interesting is that it feels vulnerable to me not only to talk about my struggles with mental health but also my struggles with stigmatization …

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