No Stigma, No Shame: Breaking the Silence of Mental Illness

Mental Health Awareness Month

Posted May 02, 2016

Despite the increased awareness of mental illness and the reduction of stigma against people like me who live with a mental illness, it is still difficult to be open about what it is like to live with a mental illness. Brain disorders have a stigma that other illnesses do not have and yet there is no health without mental health.

Surviving and Recovery

For those who have had cancer, there is the label 'cancer survivor', and people who have made it through the other side can be proud about being cancer free, and people share with them in the relief that brings.

For those who have won the battle with addiction, being sober gets counted in days and years and being sober gets 'awarded' with kudos and supported for doing the work necessary to stay drug or alcohol free.

For those of us with mental illness, we have not yet been given 'permission' to own our survival or to claim our days, weeks or years that we have been symptom-free because we too are working our 'recovery'.

Risk and Resistance

Thus it was when Amy Keller Laird, Editor-in-Chief of Woman's Health, decided to write about her own obsessive compulsive disorder and profile other women at the magazine in a feature on mental health for their May cover story related to Mental Health Awareness Month, the lawyers and HR people at the magazine resisted. They felt that the reputation of the magazine may be at risk. Then the veteran reporter they hired to write the story backed out because she could not find many women who wanted to be featured in a national magazine.

I ended up being one of those women who were featured and I cannot say it was an easy decision. Although I have written about my challenges with having a severe, chronic mental illness like bipolar disorder, being 'the face' of bipolar disorder in a magazine with such a huge readership was something I struggled with because I also wanted to focus on my health and not my illness.

Out and About

But I also knew from the response I have gotten from other public 'outings' about my illness, that there needs to be a 'counter-image' to what most people think of when they think of bipolar disorder; the image of the 'crazy person' who goes 'nuts' because they were not taking their medications or because they had a psychotic break. People need to know that people with mental illness can thrive and succeed. It is also good for people to know that we also are 'survivors', that we also have 'days of recovery'; that we are not always 'ill'. That our symptoms can be managed like the symptoms of many other chronic illnesses. My story is like the story of many other people with mental illness: we have families and careers and live lives we love.

Mental Health Awareness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and during this month, various organizations such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and celebrities such as Princes William and Harry and Princess Kate have launched campaigns to fight the stigma against mental illness. Stigma and shame are also compounded by the lack of access to preventive care and treatment.

So this month, reach out to someone you know who is living with mental illness. Give them your support. Be a friend. Stand up when other people speak about those with mental illness in derogatory terms. Write your media outlets for a more balanced portrayal of people with mental illness. Demand that your primary care physician do mental health assessments as part of their well-care visits.

And if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms or at risk of mental illness, see your medical practitioner as soon as possible to take the steps necessary to get and stay healthy, because there is no health without mental health.