Sorry. Stigma is alive.
DJ Jaffe, founder of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, wrote an article in the Huffington Post last week declaring that “there is no stigma to having a mental illness.” I am not in agreement with Jaffe’s statement that “stigma is dead,” and- even better- that “eliminating [it] was relatively easy.” When I did a little research on Mr. Jaffe, I found no evidence that he has ever had the pleasure of having a psychiatric illness and encountering stigma himself. So where exactly does he get the right to say that stigma is gone? Because unfortunately, a lot of us who actually live with mental illness still find stigma in places that we really need support: our jobs, our friends, even our families. I don’t believe that abolishing stigma is as easy as changing our thinking. Perhaps for the individual, that is a good process to go through and understand that he or she is not a leper for having a mental illness, and that they deserve as much love and support as someone going through cancer or any other disease. But I don’t know how well that works on a large scale. Jaffe also claims that awareness campaigns are “not only ineffective, but harmful.” He thinks we should stop focusing on awareness about a “non-existent stigma” and instead turn our efforts to changing policy. While I agree that some awareness campaigns are not doing the cause any favor with their wording, I think it’s a little drastic to stop raising awareness altogether. There are still many people who don’t have any or have very limited knowledge of mental illness- including medical personnel- and that needs to be addressed. I do agree that we need to refocus the awareness campaigns on what actually goes on with psychiatric patients instead of trying to make mental illness appear to be the cake walk it most certainly is not. Perhaps focusing more on making the public aware of signs and symptoms and how to access treatment would be more beneficial than trying to gloss it over and make mental illness appear friendly, the way some campaigns currently are. One campaign, called No Kidding, Me Too! (nkm2.org) goes so far as saying it wants to make having mental illness “cool and sexy.” Cool and sexy?? Get serious.
Jaffe claims that stigma is gone, and that all we are facing now is prejudice and discrimination. That we should be focusing on gaining more rights for people with mental illness. Of course, we should never stop fighting for our rights. But I think he’s got it a little backwards. Isn’t discrimination simply the way stigma manifests in society? Stigma isn’t just a way of thinking, it’s a way of behaving, a way of treating people as if they’re different. Being stigmatized is to be outcast, branded a pariah. To be stigmatized is to be looked at as something less than you are, something outside of who you are- to not be seen for who you are at all. It is a form of prejudice, where you are labeled and categorized before being known, without having the chance to be known. Once someone has placed a stigma on you, it is extraordinarily difficult to reverse their thinking or their view of you. Most of the time, it’s easier to walk away than to waste time trying to change their minds. I have lost jobs and opportunities because of my history of mental illness. I was once interviewing for a position as a nanny and even though I had not engaged in self-harm for over three years (and I am an excellent caregiver), once the mother asked about the scars on my arms that was the last I heard of her. I can understand that, but I can also be angry about it, because that was not the only time it happened. I know many other people with very similar stories who have lost jobs and relationships over their issues with mental illness.
That, to me, is the definition of stigma.
Sometimes it does boggle my mind that with all of the education and publicity about mental illness and with celebrities coming forth to say they suffer from these diseases, the general public is not more understanding. But as I wrote in one of my former articles, there is something about a mental illness that disturbs people in a way that physical illness does not. The brain, the mind, is the seat of the soul. When something breaches that, it can be extremely unsettling to watch. You see that the self you once thought inviolable is not necessarily so. I get why that would freak people out in a way that something like pneumonia wouldn’t. However, that does not give anyone the right to treat a person with a psychiatric illness as if they are ignoble. The majority of people with mental illness, when treated properly, are extremely high functioning. You would not know that I have bipolar unless I told you. You would not know that I nearly died from anorexia and bulimia, that I was once crippled by posttraumatic stress disorder. Unless you look closely you don’t really see the faded scars on my arms from years of self-inflicted wounds. I take my medication as prescribed, I see my therapist when needed, and I eat like a normal person. I go to school and I work and I write and I live. This is how it is for many people with mental illness. We take our meds and see our shrinks and go about our days, and we are perfectly capable of anything that someone without mental illness is capable of.
Obviously, it is not this way for everyone. There are many others who suffer greatly every day, who struggle because they cannot afford treatment or because treatment is ineffective. There are people who need intensive care for most of their lives due to the severity of their disease. And there are, sadly, people who die from mental illness. As Jaffe said, on one of the few points I agree with, we should put our efforts into changing public policies that further victimize and discriminate against people who are already suffering through mental illness, especially those policies that force patients to become suicidal or dangerous before qualifying for treatment. But saying that stigma is nonexistent does not serve anyone. It is simply ignoring the reality that those with mental illness encounter every day. And haven’t we done that enough?
© Sarah Henderson 2011