Mental Health Awareness Month 2015: Stigma and Shaming

The last few weeks have been tumultuous. Between a semi-suicidal period, gearing up for my move and learning from my psychiatrist I actually have Bipolar I, not II as we had thought (more on that at another time) and starting a new med as a result, I’m exhausted.

But I won’t let my exhaustion keep me from writing this post, which has been swirling around for a while and I’m just now figuring out which words to use to express it.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar and major depressive disorder are, in fact, disabilities. This means that people who are mentally ill are protected under certain rights, both in the workplace and in “real life”. However, it doesn’t seem that that always happens. There is still so much stigma surrounding mental illness that it impairs a person’s ability to get treatment, acceptance, or both.

Case in point: as a society, we rally against those who bully kids with autism, transgender teens, down syndrome afflicted persons and blind and deaf persons. But if you have mental illness?…not so much. Sadly I do not see Facebook “lit up blue” for mental illness, as it was for autism. Should I choose to mock my ex fiancee’s girlfriend for the little bit of weight she has put on, I would be deemed a bully, anti-feminist. I would receive angry emails about “fat shaming”. Weight struggles are not a disability 85-90% of the time, whereas mental illness is 100% of the time. However, I have received mistreatment as a result of my bipolar disorder and major depression which are, in fact, disabilities that I was born with.

So, why are somethings taboo to mock, but not mental illness? The answer, of course, is stigma. There had long been an impression that people with mental illness choose to be sick. That with positive thinking and exercise we could “shake it off”. We have made so many discoveries regarding the actual organic nature of mental illnesses, but those old beliefs have not disappeared. I am aware that due to a chemical imbalance in my head, I have bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. It’s kind of like having shade on one side of the street and shadows on the other- it’s just not evenly distributed. But because of this, I am seen as dangerous, unpredictable, unreliable, unworthy of respect or trust, “crazy”. People shouldn’t let their kids near me, or let me drive or vote or reproduce.

I hope that one day we will see a world in which we respond as swiftly to the mistreatment of the mentally ill as we do to the mistreatment of other disabilities. I hope to one day be able to tell people of my illnesses without fear of losing a friendship, a job, a relationship. Some of the finest people that I have ever had the privilege to meet have been disabled- be it with MS, Down’s Syndrome, Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder. Each one of these people has had an impact on my life and challenged me to look at my own internalized stigma and prejudices. I’m not perfect, I still have stereotypes in my head that I work on, but I am opening my eyes to what it is like for other people, and I am open to continuing to learn and grow in that respect.

Finally, I want to thank my amazing,beautiful blogging community- both the mental illness and chronic illness writers I’ve gotten to “know”- BPNurse, Dyane Leshin-Harwood, Kat Galaxy, Kitt O’Malley, Jenn Marshall of, YourBipolarGirl and so many others. Through your words, I have learned so much, both about you and your illnesses, your lives and the ways you cope and find joy in everyday things.

Filed under: Wellness Warriors Tagged: autism, bipolar disorder, depression, downs syndrome, Mental Health, mental illness, shaming, stigma

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