Stigma: a fallacy based on preconceived notions. I am going to go out on a limb here: Everyone at some point in his or her life has experienced stigma. Maybe because we have a lisp, a limp, maybe due to a physical impairment or maybe due to socioeconomic status. Stigma is nearly always directed at something we are unable to fully control.
Stigma breaking takes not hiding behind the mask of “normal”.
Mental health awareness is comprised of many things, including educating ourselves and the public about the realities of living with a mental illness. But it requires more than that. It requires stripping of the mask we wear in an effort to fit in. Wearing that figurative mask implies that we are separate and not equal.
Breaking the stigma begins with us, not with “them”.
We live in the Information Age. The DSM has been updated and the discussions surrounding its release, its flaws and its revised descriptions of symptoms and diagnosis of mental illnesses shines the spotlight on the illness, but not on the BraveHearts living with a mental illness. In spite of the parade of drugs of every shape and color with promises of stabilization and hope, fear and bias against those with mental illness remains. Nearly every time some heinous crime occurs, the public – with their torches and pitchforks – pops off with “psychos! They walk amongst us, whatever happened to locking them up?” And if the media learns and reports that the suspect actually is or was mentally ill, then all bets are off. The torches burn even more brightly and the cries are louder.
Time to rip off the mask and show society what 1 in 4 persons with a mental illness looks like.
It is time to show those who most need to see it that we are educated, that we live, work and play amongst them and that we aren’t looking for ways, via our illness, to harm them. Taking the mask off requires vulnerability but the most powerful witness to the ability of the mentally ill to thrive and to live joyfully in spite of a diagnosis is to tell our truths, to self-identify and to own it. (Watch these mental health stigma videos)
I am not a trained mental health professional. I don’t have a Ph.D or M.D. behind my name. Yet I AM an expert in what living with PTSD, panic and bipolar disorder is like. I AM an expert in being a survivor of child abuse, domestic violence, breast cancer at age 29 and a rape 8 years ago. I AM an expert on the realities of building my life into passionate self-care, management of triggers, what panic and the darkness of depression feel like and my life is a testament to resilience. So is YOURS.
Last year, I blew the doors off being masked and mentally ill with The Face to Face: Uncommon Commonalities Project. I began with a simple goal: To illustrate photographically that there is no one look or characteristic that defines mental illness, even across diagnoses. I approached a local mental health program about the concept and once the proper permissions were in place, went about capturing over 400 images of beautiful souls. The final set of images was shown to various groups of students with the challenge to identify the common element across the subjects. The final image in the series is a self-portrait of me. I gave the audience a chance to guess once more and then revealed that each subject has a mental illness.
Mental illness is an equal opportunity thief. It cuts across socioeconomic, educational levels and so much more. One in four persons will develop a mental illness in his or her lifetime.
I am not suggesting that your unmasking be as public as that but allowing others to see you as competent, as a human being with skills, talents and courage will go a long way to combat stigma. One baby step at a time. . .we can change the cycle. It is time to meet Face to Face.
(Join the Stand Up for Mental Health Campaign. Put a button on your blog or website. Put a cover on your Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ profile. Isn’t it time you stood up for yourself, for mental health?)