Recently on Facebook I asked how many of my friends knew the meaning of the semicolon – other than as a mark of punctuation. About two-thirds of those who responded did. The rest either didn’t or had some vague idea but no real knowledge. But I’m pretty vocal about mental health issues and a fair number of my friends have similar problems and difficulties, so that two-thirds figure is likely not representative of the population at large.
Yet I see increasing numbers of t-shirts, bracelets, and other paraphernalia adorned with semicolons and sometimes colorful butterflies or the word “warriors.” But nowhere does it say what the semicolon stands for. For those of you who don’t know, the semicolon marks that place in a sentence where a writer could have stopped, but chose to go on. As such, it has become a symbol for suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
I have a semicolon tattoo myself. I don’t regret getting it. It reminds me, as the saying goes, that my story isn’t over. But when I got it, I also hoped it would be a tool for education – that I could explain to those who saw it and asked what the symbol meant.
Unfortunately, no one has asked.
I’d hate to think that the semicolon has become like a secret handshake that identifies members of our tribe to one another, but leaves out the rest of the world. As stigma-fighting symbols go, it doesn’t seem terribly effective.
The political conversation has become so fraught that no one talks to anyone who doesn’t believe in the same things. And I’m afraid that, like them, we’re largely talking to ourselves.
Self-talk is important – definitely something we should pay attention to and work on improving. But if we really want to fight stigma, we need to talk to other people about it.
I see a fair number of stigma-fighting memes and discussions, but unfortunately, most of them take place in mental health support groups, where the message is not as much needed as in the larger world outside our band of the mentally ill.
Of course, there are organizations such as NAMI, Bipolar Awareness – Stop the Stigma, and Stigma Fighters that dedicate effort to reducing stigma. And they are doing a good, necessary thing.
But what about the rest of us? What can we do to break out of our shells and involve the rest of the world in our cause?
One thing is to question other people’s assumptions when we see or hear them. When you read a post that calls the weather bipolar, answer it. Explain why that’s not a good comparison – that it trivializes a very real problem that millions of people face every day. And when someone assumes that a mass shooter or other terrorist must be mentally ill (or “off his meds”), remind them that those with mental illness are more often the victims of violence that they are the perpetrators of it.
Will people get the message, or will they just dismiss you as “politically correct” or a “social justice warrior”? Personally, I can think of worse names to be called, and many of us have been called them. But just as “retarded” and “gay” are no longer acceptable as synonyms for “weird” or “stupid,” we should try our best to make “crazy” and “mental” and “psycho” and that annoying little twirl of the finger by the temple no longer acceptable as shorthand for behavior that one doesn’t understand. (I still haven’t figured out how “dumb” and “lame,” both ableist language, have managed to skate by.)
What I’m saying is that to fight stigma we need to engage with the world outside. We need to explain why certain uses of language are hurtful and what the truth is about the many people who are affected by mental illness.
I’ve had to smack a few friends on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper when they get it wrong and I try to put my two cents into other discussions that are portraying the mentally ill insensitively. I think about what I’m going to say and even practice it before I speak or press send. (Sounding well-informed and reasonable is the way I want to express my message.) I post my blog entries to “public” as well as to friends and support groups. Sometimes I even talk to my family about stigma.
As a group, we need to do a whole lot better at not hiding from stigma but confronting it wherever we see it. We can live with stigma or we can fight it.