What does mental illness look like? Is it the man standing on the street corner talking to himself? Is it the woman huddled on the couch all day, or the prisoner pacing his small cell? Let us refocus. What if it is your extroverted coworker, or your son’s energetic football coach? What if it is the calm, well dressed person sipping coffee next to you at the coffee shop? It can be all these people, but we often just don’t see it. They are hiding from the stigma. That is, any characteristic of an individual that may develop a socially negative attitude towards that individual (psychologydictionary.org). It is the stigma and shame that keeps many outwardly quiet about their inward struggle. To talk about these things admits weakness, or does it? Let’s discuss how can we take back this stigma so that talking about it equals strength.
In his engaging TED talk Sangu Delle discussed the weight of stigma in his own life as a West African man. In his country those with mental illness are chained and treated as outcasts. Thus, those who can must hide their illness at all cost. “Being strong is killing us,” Delle quotes a friend saying. He summarizes his call to action in four main points:
- Stop suffering in silence
- Stop stigmatizing disease and traumatizing the afflicted.
- Speak up about how we feel
- Being honest about how we feel does not make us weak, it makes us human.
Comedian Kevin Breel also gave a TED talk as a man suffering mental illness who also hid his symptoms. A common analogy reads like this; your spouse falls and breaks their arm and no one criticizes them on crying out in pain and demanding treatment. Yet, if your spouse becomes suicidal, it becomes a family secret for those who know. Breel’s point; we are accepting of any body part breaking down, except the brain with mental illness.
Stigma carries over to entire professions that are at higher risk of depression, anxiety or PTSD. For example, first responders are notorious for their bravery, strength, and endurance. They rescue us, saving our lives in moments of crisis. Now, imagine you are a paramedic, and this is what the public is telling you. You feel honored and proud. But, why do images of crash victims continue to haunt your dreams and wake you at night? You are you dreading going to work today, but wouldn’t dare tell anyone because that would show weakness. Now what do you do?
There is an encouraging movement throughout social media at fighting the stigma of mental illness. One can follow online groups of people with similar backgrounds that offer support and share stories. The Code Green Campaign, for example, is a nonprofit mental health advocacy and education organization. It spotlights the high rates of mental illness in first responders. It aims to “eliminate the stigma that prevents people from admitting these issues and asking for help.” (codegreencampaign.org) The campaign allows a platform for people to tell their story anonymously, which in turn fuels discussion and reduces stigma. This model could be applied to people of any ethnic group or work background.
If you suffer any mental illness, you are not alone. Speak up, search out the stories of others, find a resource, friend or online community, and take care of yourself. Let us open up the discussions and break down the stigma of mental illness.
Cindy Van Praag, MD