I Am a Person with Mental Illness
Lived experience gives me a special knowledge of stigma.
Posted Jan 08, 2019
I am a college professor and a licensed clinical psychologist who is Principal Investigator of the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment; NCSE has been supported by the National Institute of Health for more than 15 years. In that capacity, I have published over 400 peer reviewed papers summarizing my research on stigma and mental health. I am also editor of Stigma and Health, a journal published by the American Psychological Association.
But I am also a person with serious mental illness. And those credentials have given me the greatest wisdom and authority in challenging stigma. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depression, and generalized anxiety disorder for more than 40 years. I have been under a doctor’s care for decades and took my psych meds this morning. I have been hospitalized for my mental illness and know the shame it entails. I remember calling my wife, Georgeen, from the single wall phone on the unit and telling her that I would miss my daughter Liz’s school function that night because I was on a locked ward.
I’ll admit; understanding and erasing stigma is a scholarly interest of mine. But stomping out its harmful effects is my passion. I know what it means when peers say opportunities are diminished by public discrimination; teachers who treat them less in school, employers who won’t hire them, and landlords who won’t rent to them. I told no one about my mental health challenges for the first 12 years of my career at the University of Chicago Medical School in fear of repercussions; not necessarily the concern that University leaders would block my promotion but rather that my scholarship would be diminished if colleagues thought I was “mentally ill” too.
I know what it means when peers say they suffer with self-stigma, the sense of shame they experience when they are labeled with mental illness. I always thought this was the terrible irony of mental illness; it is hard enough to deal with the depression and anxiety, but I also have to handle its disgrace. Self-stigma drives us into the closet so no one discovers our shame. I proudly wore my doctor badge -- “I’m a Professor of Psychiatry!” -- on my sleeve at professional gatherings that included people with lived experience but, for the longest time, never shared with those individuals that I too had a mental illness. “No. no. Not me. I’m not one of those mental patients!”
I had outstanding professional mentors who helped me become the scholar I am today: Bob, Michael, Chuck, and Bennett. But my most valuable lessons came from those with lived experience: Andrea, Ruth, Sally, Eduardo, Keris, and Paolo. They modeled for me what it means to live with dignity in a world that demeans those of us with mental illness. They taught me how to demand respect and join the conversation so ignorance about stigma is replaced with affirming attitudes and behavior. I am proudly out with my mental illness to tear down the stigma we all know so well.