The Stigma of Social Security Disability for Mental Illness
Tuesday, June 5 2012 Becky Oberg
When people ask what I do, I tell them I run a freelance writing business. I'm too proud--and afraid--to tell them my major income comes from Social Security disability. If I do that, I often hear "You look fine to me." Then I'll need to explain I'm on Social Security disability due to a psychiatric condition, in which case I fear hearing "Isn't that all in your head?" There's a heavy stigma against receiving social security disability, and a bigger stigma against receiving social security disability for a mental illness.
Social Security Disability Stigma and My Invisible Illness
It's one thing to be on disability if you're physically disabled, if people can see your disability. It's quite another to be on disability if you have an invisible illness. This shouldn't be the case, as one of the leading causes of disability is depression.
Yet there remains a stigma not only to mental illness in and of itself, but also being disabled because of it. We're often assumed to be lazy and conning the system--after all, we don't have a trace of a visible illness. We don't look sick. We should be able to work.
The sad thing is people don't see the aftermath of what happens when we try to work. Being overwhelmed and exhausted is common, but not a good way to keep your job. Getting fired is a common fate; I've lost one job and was discharged from the Army due to my illness. It's seen as a discipline issue, not as a health issue.
Social Security Disability Stigma and Jesus?
I've noticed that the stigma is the worst among the religious crowd. There's even a joke about it; the short version is that Jesus is healing people when one says "Get away from me; I'm on disability." It's as if the religious crowd believes we choose to be sick, when the truth is nobody in their right mind would choose to have a mental illness.
Last night, a local ministry stopped by my apartment to bring pizza. Once they started talking about mental illness, I questioned whether the free pizza was worth it. They claimed that Jesus could heal any illness and that if I had enough faith Jesus would heal me from demonic attack. "By his stripes we are healed," after all.
The sad thing is this stigma can lead to the illness getting worse. My ex-fiance went off his medication, claiming "Medication can't do nothing Jesus can't do." Long story short, that's why he's now an ex. He violated a court order for treatment, skipped the state, got married, got divorced, and is now on his second marriage before age 30--probably none of which would have happened had he stayed on his medication.
Fighting Social Security Disability Stigma
When he was in college, my youngest brother worked on fighting the stigma of disability. Every time someone made a disparaging comment, he would tell my story: that his sister couldn't work because she'd lose her disability insurance, then wouldn't be able to afford her medication, then wouldn't be able to work due to her now-untreated disability. I was about to tell him I appreciated this when he said "But I don't tell them you have a mental illness. I tell them you have diabetes. Otherwise they wouldn't understand."
I recently finished acting in a play called Nobody Needs to Know by Carol Bozena. The play addresses stigma as an issue we all have some control over. While disability is not directly addressed, there is a line in which a relative accuses a major character of being lazy and "using this depression as a vacation from your responsibilities." Ironically, a similarly-harsh social worker calls treatment "the hardest work you've ever done."
When I was waiting for my discharge from the Army, one of my buddies made a stigmatizing comment about mental illness. I explained that our brains are like a circuit--that under normal circumstances, they worked fine, but when they short-circuited due to a chemical imbalance, we became ill. It was a physical condition that manifested itself in the emotions.
Like it or not, it is up to us to educate people about mental illness. And that starts by addressing the stigma.