Stigma makes it harder to discuss mental illness

  • Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 12:22 a.m.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of columns written in observance of National Mental Illness Awareness Week, submitted by the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

By Lee Ann Sides


NAMI of Rowan

Life is messy. We all have our ups and downs. For some, life can sometimes seem to be stuck on the “down” phase more than “up.” The world can be a dark, confusing place.

If you think something is wrong, it probably is. Statistics state one in four people have a mental illness and only one-third of these people seek help.

A mental illness diagnosis can be daunting. For some, it may feel as if your life has been turned upside down and you have no idea where to go from here. For others, it can be a relief, being able to put a name on something you felt was wrong for a long time. But it is not the end of the world. There are plenty of agencies and organizations who can help.

Stigma plays a large role in whether individuals ask for help, whether they stay on the proper medication and can contribute to the isolation of the mentally ill. The misconceptions of the public at large can prevent the mentally ill from seeking employment, the help they desperately need and can place them in unnecessarily negative situations which further complicate matters. A friend once told me when she told a family member she was diagnosed with PTSD from a long-term abusive relationship with an alcoholic, she was met with the response, “I wouldn’t tell anyone that if I were you.” This made her feel ashamed and alone, and she says she immediately knew she would get no support from that person.

Like my friend, persons with mental illness are not ill due to any fault of their own. It is not a “character weakness” or a weak mental state. People often can’t just “snap out of it.” It’s hard to know your head is mixed up if your head is mixed up. Sometimes it takes outside help for a mentally ill person to understand something is wrong.

As with PTSD, one person may develop it in a given situation and another may not. Whether it happens depends on many factors including how severe the trauma, the length of the trauma and the depth of the reaction to the trauma. As human beings, we all react to the same situation differently, our brain chemistry is different and we have very different views.

As a member of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I see mentally ill people who are doing very well and living normal lives every day. Those are the people you don’t read about. Positive stories about mental illness are not prevalent in the news. People who are doing well don’t come forward and tell their stories out of fear — fear they will be stigmatized on their job and in their daily lives, fear that people will see them through the eyes of the public misconceptions, fear they will be lumped into the same category with the person who has bipolar disorder or schizophrenia who committed this or that crime.

Being judged is a mentally ill person’s biggest nightmare. The judgment is not deserved and these judgments are made even before someone gets to know the person. The assumption is made based on what is thought to be the symptoms of PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, etc. or the immediate reaction is fear of what they don’t know. Can you imagine what it is like to have someone be afraid of you because of a label they attach to PTSD or bipolar? People aren’t afraid to talk to you when you have cancer or diabetes. Mental illness is a disease just like any other. It just affects the part of the body people think with.

One of the single biggest factors in determining the wellness of a mentally ill person is love and support. Having someone who loves you unconditionally is an essential part of life for all of us whether we are mentally ill or not.

For more information on mental illness, go to www.nami.org .

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