I recently encountered a simple, unintentional act that reminded me of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness; not just stigma placed on those of us living with mental health conditions but the perceived stigma that we place on ourselves.
In this case I had written an article to be used as a promotional piece for a non-profit that focuses on substance use prevention. The article referenced my experience living with bipolar and anxiety disorder and, based on that, the person I submitted the article to responded with, "Don't worry, we won't attach your name to the article. No one will ever know it was you who wrote it." As I said, it was an innocent comment meant to be kind and considerate. Yet it somehow made me feel as if I should be ashamed in some way of my diagnosis and the struggles I have faced as a result of it. For someone living in the "Stigma Trap" that could have easily sent them into a spiral of negative thoughts. It could have reinforced the self-loathing and fear of disclosure that so many suffer from.
In the writing of this piece, I came across an article written by Gretchen Grappone, LICSW, wherein she discussed her experiences in overcoming stigma by saying, "So how did I overcome the stigma that I faced? I rejected it. Rejecting - or overcoming - stigma, whether it be self-stigma or structural stigma, is one of the keys for those of us living with mental illness. This is not an easy task to be sure, but it is becoming more possible and a bit easier as more and more of us speak out about our mental health conditions." (https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2018/Overcoming-Stigma).
Could it possibly be that simple? Just reject it? Speak out? Maybe it is a bit more complicated than that but I do believe Ms. Grappone is on to something. The scenario above did not make me feel sad, ashamed or stigmatized. The thoughts going through my head were 'that's silly' and 'why would I be embarrassed to have my name attached to something sharing my mental illness, something I have been fortunate enough to find recovery from.'
That is a clear example of me rejecting stigma. I believe the first step in that rejection is to realize that the flaw is in the thinking; whether it is a particular person, society as a whole, or even our own self-stigmatizing thoughts. That is not to say that I don't find it frustrating when I see or hear something that continues to perpetuate the stigma. However, I also find it empowering because of the opportunity it creates. The opportunity to speak up, to educate and to reduce stigma - even if it is just in the eyes of one person. It is my belief that stigma can be eliminated but it will happen one person at a time. It will be accomplished by those of us living with mental health conditions and our loved ones speaking up and saying we are proud of who we are. Each person we reach, can become an ambassador, spreading that message to others they encounter.Maybe the first step in ridding our world of stigma is to reject the self-loathing and internal shame. We can all start by reminding ourselves that mental illness is just that, an illness. It is not a weakness or something to be feared. To me, the best part of having mental illness is the knowledge that recovery is possible. Even if you are not at that stage yet, it is out there, and you can live and work every day to reach it. The fact that you are here makes you someone special, someone who should be proud and hold their head up high. When those negative thoughts creep in, don't let them catch you in the stigma trap. REJECT THEM. Then use the situation as an opportunity to speak up and eradicate stigma, one person at a time.
Written by Nikki Rashes