Stigma: it's an ugly word. It's almost a curse word. When I tell someone that I don't know very well that I have panic disorder, I get a variety of reactions. Sometimes they understand. I had one woman the other day say to me:
"Really? Me too!"
That was quite a surprise since we only knew each other peripherally as she lives in my neighborhood and we see each other sometimes in passing.
Another time, I revealed to a parent at my son's school that I deal with anxiety attacks. It was part of dialogue about what I write on The Huffington Post. He just looked at me with a blank stare. So I changed the subject and we talked about his career instead.
The varying reactions I receive when speaking about panic disorder are a testament to how strong stigma is. I want the day to come when I can say "I have panic disorder," and the person on the other end of the conversation says "Cool," or "So does my brother," or perhaps "I have diabetes."
Mental health diagnoses have stigma attached to them more than physical health conditions. One typically doesn't worry about revealing hyperthyroidism. If you tell someone you are hyperthyroid, the person on the other end of that exchange recognizes that you have a medical condition that requires medication and maintenance.
On the other hand, if you reveal that you have panic disorder (for example) the person you're speaking to may judge you as strange, scary, or worse: crazy.
The "C" word is the worst of them all. It is not crazy to have a biological condition. You wouldn't tell someone with diabetes that they are crazy for taking insulin. The same goes for a person managing panic disorder or bipolar disorder. They are treating a condition diagnosed by a mental health professional.
In order to fight stigma, you (as an individual dealing with mental health issues) must do one crucial thing: be who you are.
That's it. Be who you are. If the person on the other hand doesn't get it, you can encourage them to ask questions. Who you are is beautiful. Who you are is meaningful. Most importantly, be being who you are, you will break down stigma. We are not our mental illnesses. We are human beings.