The Mental Illness Stigma-Why Are People Afraid To Talk About Mental Illness?Jan 17, 2022
Jo Tonnesen (with Craig Byrne)
The Stigma of Mental Illness
Society has a shared experience that we never talk about. In fact, we deny it every chance we get. Because mental illness is so misunderstood, you may not have realized that you have struggled with symptoms of one or more mental illnesses at some point in your life.
All of us, no matter our race, creed or color have had feelings of depression, anxiety, or disorganized thoughts. However, when it comes to discussing mental illness and those who are affected by it, most of us shy away from the topic. But why? After all, we’ve all had moments when our minds tried to protect us from discomfort, and we have all felt our minds spinning, causing us to “go crazy.” The reason, most likely, is the stigma surrounding mental illness that continues to close the door on the mental illness conversation.
The mental illness stigma has forced those who struggle with their mental state or emotional wellbeing to be hidden away by well-meaning family, friends, schools, and churches in order to protect them from a society that can be judgmental and cruel. However, I believe that we have all felt uncertain about whether we were mentally able to navigate a difficult or traumatic situation in our own lives. We have all wondered if a situation, such as abuse or extreme trauma, that has caused damage to our own mental health could force us “never to be the same again”. Therefore, why do we stigmatize mental illness if we have all found ourselves wondering about our capacity to handle overwhelming, often uncontrollable circumstances? Why are conversations concerning mental illness so taboo? One reason could be a misunderstanding about mental health
The Mental Illness Myth
A myth that diminishes understanding and connection between someone with a diagnosis and those without one is that a mental illness diagnosis is synonymous with an intellectual deficiency or developmental delay. This is not always the case. The fact is that there is no predisposition between a mental illness diagnosis and intellectual ability. A person’s IQ is not necessarily a contributing factor in a diagnosis. There have been studies that hypothesize lower childhood IQs may be associated with a higher risk for mental illness and other studies which suggest high IQ puts people at risk for a mental illness.
Additionally, there is significant research that correlates some mental illnesses with high creative capacities. With a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder (once known as manic depression) “Stanford Report” explains, “eminently creative individuals have a much higher rate of manic depression, or bipolar disorder, than does the general population.” In fact there are many famous artists, actors and actresses, musicians and writers who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The Common Human Element
A big question that many of us would like to know if we could talk openly and honestly about mental health is what is the difference between someone with a mental illness and an undiagnosed person who experiences common feelings associated with mental illness such as sadness, mood swings or anxiety? Just as there are many different people and many different life situations, there are many answers to this question. It is important to remember that there are mild, moderate and severe cases. Many people become permanently disabled and have great difficulty managing their lives because of an extreme diagnosis. However, some people simply need to seek medical help when they are dealing with a particular life situation. Some receive the help they need, get better and no longer need medical help or medications.
Unfortunately, it is estimated that about 450 million people have a mental illness, but only 400 million ever receive proper treatment. Why are so many people not improving the quality of their lives if they are suffering? Because of the mental illness stigma, they may feel ashamed to seek help, or they may live in a country where there are no options available for treatment. Here in the United States, there is a great amount of help for the mentally ill, but still the stigma could convince someone going through a difficult situation not to seek treatment. They may feel any number of emotions that could be causing them to reject help. Perhaps they know once they are diagnosed with a mental illness, it becomes part of their permanent health record. I know I had my own reasons why I didn’t want to be labeled “mentally ill.”
My Personal Experience With A Mental Health Issue
When I received my first diagnosis of “Clinical Depression” I was in my mid 30’s, was raising 2 teenage boys by myself, had a failed marriage, been in and out of abusive relationships (physically and emotionally), and had been laid off from my job in middle management for an escrow company. I was feeling emotionally drained and was having panic attacks.
Even though I had been seeing a therapist for a few years because of the ups and downs of life, I had not had time to catch my breath and find tools to help me move forward and stop repeating the old pattens. There just wasn’t enough time during sessions to share what had happened over the last week AND move onto healing tools to figure out how to interrupt my poor habits and self-sabotage and get back on track. I was abusing alcohol to escape overwhelming negative feelings and thoughts of worthlessness. To be honest, I had surrounded myself with like-minded people who were participating in the same unhealthy behaviors. We called this dysfunction “normal” in our group, but my therapist obviously knew otherwise. She shared with me the fact that drinking and smoking was damaging my mental and physical health but again, there was no time or ability to tell me WHAT to do instead.
I would leave my session committing to “do better,” but I had no playbook on what this would look like. If I didn’t go out and “have fun” (drinking, eating bar food, staying up until the morning and sleeping all day) on the weekends, what WAS I supposed to do instead? This pattern continued for many years. No matter how many hours I spent with my therapist the time was filled with me throwing up my traumatic and dramatic weekend events, crying over my poor choices, dedicating myself to making new decisions and then feeling like a failure by the next appointment where the pattern was inevitably repeated.
The whole point of sharing this story is that I had no idea HOW or WHAT to do to get my feet under me and start making healthier choices for my boys and me. The group that I was around, including my family all made similar choices, so I was considered “normal” according to my surroundings. And then came the conversation with my therapist when I asked, “so, what is WRONG with me?????” and through my tears, confusion and heartbreak, I can still hear her saying, “It’s clinical depression.”
I remember feeling so many emotions and thoughts at these words. They all hit me at once and were equal in impact. Fear, Shame, Relief, Confusion, and Embarrassment.
Fear: What does this mean? Aren’t people with a diagnosis aggressive, mean, unsafe to be around?
Shame: This means I am weak, can’t handle life. My boys deserve more than who I am and what I have to offer them.
Relief: At least it’s a “thing”. There is a word for it, that must mean there are others. Now that I know what “it” is, I can figure out how to “fix” it.
Confusion: How did this happen? Who am I now?
Embarrassment: What if people find out? I always knew I wasn’t like everyone else, and now they will know too. And, again, the worse feeling…. My boys are going to know and their friends are going to find out. I am broken, weak, and not good enough for them. WHY oh WHY did God do this to THEM?
Continuing the Conversation
I remember when I was diagnosed how much I hated myself. With time and more understanding, I have overcome this perception. And yet, as I look back now and interact with others who have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives, I realize we are all the same. We simply interpret the emotions and thoughts associated with trauma and difficult life situations in different ways. Therefore, if we all share common emotions with each other and even have similar thoughts, why can’t we simply open up the conversation concerning mental illness without the negative stigma associated with it? Instead of labels we should seek understanding.
We all have times of trouble, and there is hope and healing for anyone who is willing to open up and seek help.