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

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