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A Tale of Two Illnesses

Exploring the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Key points

  • There are often negative and discriminatory public attitudes about mental illness based on lack of understanding or fear.
  • Those with mental illness often feel ashamed or resist seeking help, thinking that reaching out is a sign of weakness.
  • We can change the conversation about mental illness by being less judgmental, more compassionate, and more supportive of those around us.
Source: Jonathan-borba/Unsplash

Illness 1

You wake up one morning and are not feeling well. You have no appetite and feel nauseous. It’s probably something you ate, so you shrug it off and don’t give it much thought.

You decide to go about your day, hoping the symptoms will improve. But over time, things start to get worse. Suddenly you develop a fever and pain in your abdomen.

You decide to try some over-the-counter medications to manage your symptoms. Despite taking the medication and trying all the home remedies you normally rely on, you continue to get worse. You decide to consult a friend or family member about your symptoms and ask for their advice. Within a day or so, the pain is excruciating, and you are unable to go to work or complete any household tasks. You make the decision that this is something serious and decide to seek professional medical help.

Illness 2

You wake up one morning and are not feeling well. You lack motivation or energy. You have difficulty concentrating and feel fatigued. You try different activities to reduce your symptoms.

In subsequent days, your situation spirals downhill. You begin to suffer from insomnia or are constantly sleeping. You lose interest in activities you once enjoyed. Your appetite is affected, and you begin to feel empty inside. You start to feel worthless, helpless, and hopeless. You are persistently sad and feel as though life isn’t worth living.

You hesitate to discuss your feelings with friends or family for fear of judgment or ridicule. You also resist reaching out for help, seeing it as a sign of weakness. The emotional pain becomes excruciating, but you continue to resist professional help for fear of being labeled as mentally ill.

Comparing the illnesses

In both scenarios, your everyday life becomes more and more affected. In the beginning, you assume it’s probably nothing serious and expect that things will gradually improve on their own. You try different approaches to improve.

You may reach out to family and friends to discuss your symptoms and ask for advice; however, the reactions that you receive in each scenario may be vastly different. In Illness 1, family and friends show concern and advise you to seek medical intervention. However, in Illness 2 (at least from my own personal experience), some of the responses were vastly different. Some people express concern; however, some will pass judgment and make rude comments such as “Just get over it,” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “I’m tired of hearing about it. You just have to learn to be happy.”

Why the different reactions?

Both types of illnesses cause a person to suffer. Both can cause excruciating pain. Both have the potential to be medical emergencies and life-threatening. The main difference between the two scenarios is that Illness 1 is a physical illness, and Illness 2 is a mental illness—in this case, depression.

Source: Christian-erfurt/Unsplash

Why the dangerous stigma surrounding mental illness?

There are often negative and discriminatory public attitudes about mental illness. This stigma comes from a lack of understanding or fear. Media representation of mental illness is often inaccurate and can spread false information; for example, those with mental illness are portrayed as dangerous, violent, or unpredictable. Those suffering from mental illness may be viewed as a homogeneous group, not as unique individuals with different mental health circumstances. Some people cast blame on those with a mental illness and say it’s their own fault they have it.

The stigma and stereotypes can make people feel embarrassed to discuss how they are truly feeling. They may suffer in silence and internalize their feelings or symptoms for fear of being judged. They often feel ashamed or resist seeking support, thinking that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness. Resisting treatment can ultimately result in increased suffering and a worsening of symptoms. It can also lead to tragic results.

Like many stroke survivors, I experienced various mental health challenges during my journey. At one point, I had to be hospitalized for major depression. When first admitted, I was ashamed and walked with my head down, hoping no one would recognize me. But as time progressed, I realized that people will judge you regardless of what you do, so I started looking up and even saying “Hi” if someone walked by that I recognized.

It taught me that you need to do what is best for you. Getting help was the best thing for my family and me. Why should I be embarrassed or ashamed of any part of my journey? It’s my journey, and I’m the only person who truly understands it.

How to change the conversation about mental illness

We can spread awareness about mental illness and mental health by:

  • Talking openly and honestly about mental illness.
  • Educating ourselves and others with factual, reliable information.
  • Resisting the portrayals of mental illness expressed in television, movies, and social media.
  • Completing our own research to ensure we are not buying into the falsehoods of mental illness that continue to exist.
  • Advocating for more dollars to be allocated for research, education, and treatment of mental illness.
  • Learning to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and more supportive of those around us.