As a result of Time to Talk day (Thursday 4th of February 2016) I have
been thinking about Stigma. For those of us who have mental illness,
we face Stigma often, in fact I would say that people facing mental
illness face Stigma and discrimination almost everyday, but maybe we
don't realise it.
I officially fell ill when I was about 14 and a half, that was when people found out and I started getting help. But in truth I probably
fell ill at least 6 months before that. Why didn't I ask for help when
I first started to feel unwell? Why didn't anyone notice until I was
already trapped in the darkness that is mental illness?
The answer; I was terrified, not just because it felt like I was
living in a nightmare, but also because I knew that the world would
see me through the eyes of misunderstanding, misconception and, of
course, Stigma. I knew that it was very likely I would be seen in a
different light, instead of being the quiet, high achieving student, I
would become the 'psycho' or 'freak' engulfed in madness, or I would
be seen as an attention seeking, moody teenager.
Being Autistic also meant that I had spent years of my life learning to sink into the background to avoid being 'outed' as being different.
I didn't want to be put in a spot light, it was one of my worst fears. Which is what I thought would happen if I told anyone about my struggles.
The first 6 months I suffered alone. I suffered alone because the sheer enormity of fear I had of people finding out I was suffering with mental
health problems. And that is why Stigma is so dangerous. Lots of
people don't speak or seek help because of the fear of facing peoples
judgements. Particularly men and boys - being 'macho' means showing no
weakness, and I suppose feeling emotionally unwell is seen as being weak. Actually things happen, that's life, we fall ill, we get treatment, we work hard and we recover. That is as simple as it should be, but when Stigma come and stands as a road block, everything becomes harder and more complicated.
I was never aware of the Stigma until it was me under it's beady eyes. I never consciously took any particular opinions on mental illness
before falling ill, yet I still had these strong views on how I would
be treated by society when I developed mental illness myself. I was only 14 and I already had absorbed this dangerous mind set. Subconsciously I had taken in the stereotypes, the name calling, and the myths.
For me over half of the Stigma I have faced is Self-Stigma. What I mean by 'Self-Stigma' is that I took the opinions and myths and
inflicted them upon myself. I called myself a psycho, I called myself
a freak for having mental health problems.I called myself a failure for falling ill. I was already in a position in which I was vulnerable and was subjected to derogatory thoughts due to my illness. But Stigma had brainwashed me into judging myself further.
Luckily, once I told people most were the opposite of judgemental, they supported me and tried to understand. But of course Stigma showed
its ugly face from time to time. Comments like "you are a pretty,
intelligent girl with a good family, what have you got to be depressed
about?" Or "you need to smile more often". Comments that many may not
batter an eyelid to, but for someone suffering with mental illness and
low self esteem those comments can be incredibly destructive.
I had an illness, I fell ill. If I had Diabetes no one would have battered an eyelid, no one would have told me to "snap out
of it". If I had scars or marks from injecting insulin no one would
have pointed them out and told me I had a "disgusting attention
seeking habit". If I had diabetes I would be watching what I eat, and
not eating certain things, no one would call me out and say "can't you
just eat, stop trying to look for attention". I don't mean to generalise, all illnesses are difficult to deal with. But by simply putting the word 'mental' adjacent to 'illness' suddenly that person becomes someone to be scared of or someone to disapprove of.
Guess what, I have depression, anxiety, anorexia, self harm scars, and hallucinations. I'm not ashamed, and stigmatising comments don't affect
me any more. I fell ill, it was not my decision. I did not choose to
fall ill, but I did choose to recover, that is what is important. I am
probably going to have my diagnoses for the rest of my life but I am
learning to manage them, and that's all that matters to me. I know exactly how much effort and energy I put into getting better, I know the struggle and pain I went through, and I consider myself a strong person for surviving and not giving up.
Stigma can kill, Stigma causes unnecessary suffering, and Stigma can prevent recovery. Myths are myths, don't believe them. Educate yourself and
your family and friends. Look after yourself, and look after your
peers. You never know who will be affected by mental illness, it
doesn't discriminate. We are not monsters, or attention seekers, or
freaks, we are people, and we deserve to be treated the same as anyone
Time to Change are a national organisation focussing on raising awareness of mental health and tackling stigma. Take a look at their website for more info on mental health, and the effects of stigma:
Mind are also a national organisation, they have some very good info on specific conditions and disorders;