Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Many of us can remember growing up in an era when disrespect was not tolerated. My parents wouldn't allow it in the home, among friends, at school or in the community. Disrespect had direct and immediate consequences. Learning to treat others with dignity and respect was a part of the good etiquette program learned at my home. In fact, my parents often said, "If you see someone being picked on, ridiculed or shunned, then go and make a friend of that person." This is an ideal that I've tried to live up to my entire life.

Stigma is a type of disrespect that many people who are mentally ill (like me) have to deal with on a frequent basis. It comes in many forms, both subtle and overt, but it usually is manifested by prejudice, discrimination, fear, distrust, and stereotyping. Many people might avoid socializing, working, and living near to or with someone who has a mental disorder. Stigma is primarily about disrespect. Unfortunately, everyone who is guilty of it can't be spanked.

The Language of Stigma

When I began my research about this problem, I was amazed to learn how stigma has been incorporated into much of our common language. The following is a list of words and phrases frequently used to ridicule those persons who are mentally ill. Those of us who have a mood disorder may have used these words ourselves.

(1) Around the bend; going bananas; batty; bonkers; certifiable; cracked; crazy; cuckoo; delusional; demented; deranged; disturbed; harebrained; haywire; his elevator doesn't go all of the way to the top; insane; irrational; loco.

(2) Loony; lunatic, mad; madness; maniac; men in little white coats; put you in a straight-jacket; he's mental; nuts; nutty; off your rocker; of unsound mind; he's paranoid; psycho; psychotic; schizo; raving mad; retard; screwy; screw loose; he's touched; wacko.

If you circled all of the above that you were familiar with, how many would it be? Society and we have become so used to these words that we don't even consider how hurtful and disrespectful they are.

On the bright side, on April 29th, 2002, President Bush created the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, and declared, "Our country must make a commitment. Americans with mental illness deserve our understanding and they deserve excellent care." In addition to this commission, there is a Mental Health National Anti-Stigma Campaign sponsored by the government agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. This campaign is focused on motivating "a societal change towards social acceptance and decreasing the negative attitudes that surround mental illness."

In my opinion, stigma is a result of several factors. It is due to ignorance (lack of knowledge), fear, embarrassment, a sense of superiority, pride and disrespect. One of my personal goals is to provide encouragement, opportunities, and direction that will enable us and others to gain the knowledge necessary to understand depression and bipolar disorder. A lack of knowledge produces a lack of understanding. It has been demonstrated over and over again that a failure to understand something will often result in fear and disrespect.

Even when I've talked to church groups, I have often been approached by people who are embarrassed and reluctant to discuss the subject of mental health, especially if it is related to someone close to them. Embarrassment might even cause them to become angry and deny the reality of mental illness.

As I mentioned above, disrespect is now a national problem. We see it demonstrated by the interaction of adults, children in school, employers, and the community's attitude toward law enforcement officials and government representatives. I believe that our media makes a major contribution to these attitudes in their portrayal of parents, presidents and police persons. This all carries over into how the general public treats those of us who have some form of mental illness.

The Product of Stigma

We are not able to measure the harm that stigma causes, but in talking with others and measuring my own response, I have found that it results in (1) feelings of shame, (2) hurt, (3) fear, (4) isolation, (5) a feeling of being misunderstood, (6) loneliness and (7) secrecy. Of all of these things, I believe that we are most often self-stigmatized by secrecy. As long as we feel that mental illness is something shameful, and we make every effort to hide it from our acquaintances, we will continue to be subject to the painful effects of stigma.

How To Combat Stigma

Would you be surprised to learn that while this problem is discussed even on the Presidential level, little is written about what to do about it. Nationally, the solution is to educate (I agree) the general public, protect our rights through legislation, and force insurance companies to treat mental health problems in the same way that they would treat physical health problems. All of this is good, but what can we do about stigma?

I would suggest the following: (1) educate everyone who will listen to you. Education produces understanding, and hopefully, compassion. (2) Be assertive. There is no reason why we have to allow others to ridicule us publicly or treat us with disrespect. Assertiveness is not easy to learn. It has taken me many years, but there are some good books that will advise you on how to develop this in your life. (3) Get rid of shame, through counseling, if necessary. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We acquired this health problem through no fault of our own. (4) Do not hide your struggles. Secrecy is not the solution to stigma. The more you hide, the more disrespect you earn. Life is miserable when you have to keep a secret.

Ultimately, stigma creates a barrier to a happier life for millions of people. One in five people will have a serious struggle with depression or bipolar disorder at some time in their life. Unfortunately, of that group, only one in four will seek treatment. That is primarily because of stigma. I believe that the battle we face is not just for ourselves, but also for these others who are not living as happily and productively as they might, if they would only get the help available to them.

My friends, in my opinion, the better that we understand stigma and how to fight it, the better the rest of the world will come to understand us.

On a personal note, I have been deeply depressed for the last week. I'm using this mornings "window of opportunity" to write this blog. When I get behind, please don't give up on me, I will always return as quickly as possible.

["I'm so low, I could do a ten minute free-fall off the edge of a dime."]

1 comment:

Jani'ce said...

Love this photo, Stormy! Was this taken at the NM State Fair (now called the Expo)?