Internalizing Fear and Hatred of Mental Illness
I grew up in a small town where there was no diversity of any sort, in beliefs or otherwise. And one of the things an outspoken group really didn’t like was gay people. This group lodged a major war to ensure that anything ever mentioning homosexuality was banned from my high school.
I thought these people were idiots. So I fought them. I wasn’t about to let some closed-minded, ignorant people marginalize others based on their sexuality. I went to their rallies and spoke against them. I wrote stories for our paper.
And then, sometime around age 17 I figured out I was bisexual. So I jumped into a closet for a few years.
Internalized Fear, Prejudice and Stigma
What had happened to me was that I had internalized the hatred from all these other people. I knew they were wrong and I fought against them, but their rhetoric was so prolific and convincing that some tiny voice in my head believed it myself. This is not uncommon in homosexuality and it’s not uncommon in mental illness either.
Negative Images of Mental Illness Are Pervasive
As the comments to my last post on talking about mental illness prove, people still don’t want to tell others that they have a mental illness due to the stigma associated with it. I don’t blame them. Not at all. They are protecting themselves from the hatred and ignorance of others. It’s self-preservation.
But here’s the thing, are we really scared of their ignorance and hate or deep down inside is there a little voice inside of us saying that we’re “bad” and “scary” because we’re mentally ill.
I hate that I’m bipolar. I don’t think this is an uncommon feeling. I think most people would pick being not-bipolar over being bipolar. It’s OK. I also don’t care for the fact that I was born without depth perception, but whatchagonna do?
But I have, on many occasions, hated myself because I’m bipolar. Not the best way of handling it given that it’s biological and something I can’t change.
But I have to wonder, if I lived in a world where people didn’t consider being mentally ill any different from having any other kind of illness, would I have those moments of self-hatred?
Depression Makes You Hate Yourself
Of course, a symptom of depression is self-hatred. It comes with the package. You can hate yourself for your eyes, or your nose, or your job, or anything; and it just happens to be very easy to hate yourself for the illness that is making you hate yourself. It’s got a high convenience factor.
I know that I don’t really hate myself for being bipolar. I know I don’t really hate myself for any real reason at all. I know it’s the disease. I know that.
Giving in to Stigma is Giving a Part of Yourself Away
But I have to think that every time someone with a mental illness hides their mental illness in the dark and refuses to tell anyone or talk about it, the ignorant people win a little. They’ve successfully made you believe you have to hide, when you shouldn’t have to.
I know that it’s impractical to run around telling people you have a mental illness. On many, many levels that isn’t a good idea. Choosing the people that you tell is important.
But on the other hand I think it’s important that we stand up against the people that hate us. On some level we need to say that we know there’s nothing wrong with us, we’re not bad, we’re not less, we’re not scary, we’re not violent and we’re not dangerous.
Because on some level, their blind ignorance seeps in. And we just can’t let that happen.
Tracy, N. (2011, January 24). Internalizing Fear and Hatred of Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, January 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/01/internalizing-fear-and-hatred-of-mental-illness
Author: Natasha Tracy
Great article! Love the posts!
I like to think people are enlightened when it comes to "mental health issues" but for me that has not always been the case. I have limited self-awareness when it comes to manic behaviour and it has deeply affected my life. Fortunately for me I have a partner and a step-mother that look out for me when I need it.
Disclosing BP to co-workers can hurt you in a job. My personal experience dictates you should keep it under your hat until you pass probationary periods in jobs so you cannot be fired without cause.
There are a lot of jerks in this world but conversly there are some really kind people.
It's hard to have empathy when you truly don't understand what a person is going through. At least, it's harder for some than others.
"people I have a harder time with who promote my self denial of bipolar disorder"
I agree, those people are seriously dangerous. We all have moments when we really want to deny our illness and convince ourselves we're "not sick" due to whatever rationalization we can come up with. And when people around us feed into this it can lead to very dangerous consequences.
The thing is, people don't understand this. People don't understand that just because I haven't stood naked in traffic something else bad might happen. It depends on your definition of "bad." How about getting fired or quitting? How about breaking up with a significant other? How about being horrible to your children? How about cutting yourself with broken glass?
Not sick enough for you (them) yet?
People have a variety of symptoms and negative life-effects from a mental illness. No two people are alike but that doesn't mean the illness is any less damaging to our lives and functioning. (But I know you know this.)
Honestly, I think many times you just have to put your head down a barrel forward ignoring all naysayers at times. I get a whole lot of naysayers online, but it's up to me to realize they're, um, let's go with unreasonable. And treat their opinions accordingly. It's much more difficult to do with a professional, granted, but remember, not all psychiatrists agree with each other and sometimes the line between unipolar depression and bipolar is a fine one.
And also remember this: even if they can't agree on whether you're bipolar or not, what matters is the treatment. If bipolar treatment works, great, if straight depression treatment works, great, what matters is you getting better.
Outsider ignorance is strong and pervasive it's very scary to me because I am very close to some people who do not have bipolar disorder and although are supportive still have little empathy for me. It doesn't mean they don't have sympathy. I can work with these people. The people I have a harder time with who promote my self denial of bipolar disorder are other people who should know better but are equally as ignorant and even more than the people who can't relate. I am talking about professionals (psychiatrists, therapists, social workers and other human service workers,) and particularly other people with the bipolar diagnosis.
I have heard, "You don't have manias, you've never stood in the middle of traffic naked directing traffic or lost thousands of dollars buying clothes in a day." That gem was from a psychiatrist. I've also heard, "You aren't bipolar, you only have major depressions, you have major depression," also another psychiatrist. I have also gotten attitudes from other bipolar people that my symptoms are not so pronounced so I can't have bipolar disorder. It must be something else. These are the opinions that are most damaging to me. They make me doubt myself and think I am "just crying for attention," something a very close relative told me once.
I expect stigma from ignorant parties. It's the ignorance of the professional community and peers that really bring chaos into my life.
BTW thank you for an insightful and interesting blog.
There is an inner tendency to ignore mentally disorder, that is in distinction of somatic illness. Your story remind me a patient who a long time medicate herself from conversive disorder. She has a concomitant depressive symptomatology, that impede her recovery from primary psychic illness. When the doctors diagnosed to her an organic cerebral formation, she began to restore herself depressive phenomenology as a result of neurotic disease. The chief reason for this view is the feel of guilty when anyone suffer from a mental disorder. Also, psychiatric entities presents a shamefully experience for all humane creature. Unfortunately!
I agree it is important to "come out of the closet" about being bipolar so that those around us can see it is nothing to fear. I have always been open about my condition to my circle of friends, and they have been supportive and understanding for the most part. My strategy is to allow people to get to know me first, then at the right moment, casually bring up the subject in conversation. Those who then become rejecting aren't worthy of my friendship anyway, and those who are accepting have proven they are deserving of my trust.
In the workplace, I am much more cautious, because my financial welfare is at stake. I have only once told a supervisor or co-worker about my disease, and fortunately they were accepting. In fact, it helped shed some light for them on my sometimes see-saw mood swings and behavior changes. But for the most part, I keep my personal life private in the workplace save that private part of my life for my trusted friends and family. I'm no hero, I don't like to stick my neck out and I don't wish to be the martyr for mental illness awareness. Rather, like my faith, I prefer to share it quietly with one friend at a time. All my friends have expressed to me how they have become much more understanding and aware of mental illness issues since they've known me. That is enough for me.
Thanks, Natasha and others who have responded. I am one of the lucky ones, and it's why I do a lot of volunteering with NAMI and local groups. In 1975 I was suicidal, and friends kept me from ending my life and got me to a university psychiatrist. He didn't understand bipolar depression [the word didn't exist then] but with my friend's urging the doctor allowed me to begin taking lithium.
16 years later I was again suicidal, got help, and when I returned to my workplace, my boss said "I guess it's like a faucet, sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold." His insight and comfort with me at that point was an amazing gift. I've just been passing it forward for the past 18 years, especially through NAMI and local groups.
I agree that some employers are fearful and discriminate in ways that are personally damaging; I've experienced that too, including in faith communities. But every time we tell about our recovery journey to someone who cares about us, the wall of stigma begins to crumble.
What an interesting introduction. Perhaps you are a yeti? ;)
"If you blow yourself up trying to fight stigma to help others, what good has it done you?"
That's exactly my point. We don't live in an ideal world and we can't afford to act like we do otherwise we can blow ourselves up.
Priscilla's hairier and uglier half :D
Unfortunately Natasha has a point - and the even sadder thing is that that point is driven by the missinformation and lack of open-ness and fear of the unknown that Priscilla is talking about.
Initially stigma is often better fought as a faceless entity - so that people can't put a single face too it, what they are getting is information. De-mystify the unknown they fear. Then can come the time for putting a face too it.
I also liked Natasha's point about taking care of yourself. If you blow yourself up trying to fight stigma to help others, what good has it done you?
It's certainly everyone's choice of who to disclose any part of their lives to, and if you're comfortable telling everyone, then more power to you.
But I can tell you from personal experience that in workplaces, people don't want to work with someone with a mental illness. That piece of information can destroy your career. Depends where you work, but it happens every day.
And as much as it would be great to have a world without stigma it's hard to fight it everyday with everyone. Believe me, I know about this.
So I still think it's important to be careful. It's about taking care of yourself.
Priscilla ==all good points I agree 110%--I tell my story alot and it seems to make a difference in peoples minds. Peoples ideas of those of us with mental illness are clouded by the media and what they have heard about Mental Illness. The more survivors tell the public the better informed they will be and not just by propaganda.
I think the quote- "Giving in to Stigma is Giving a Part of Yourself Away" says a lot. there is that moment where you hear the diagnosis or you think you have this or that and you hate that you are in that predicament. totally. I liked how you put that line.
However I think it's a bad idea not to talk openly about your mental health. Knowledge is power and there's a stigma because there's so much MIS-INFORMATIOn abound. So by knowing your conditions and health concerns you can enlighten and teach those around you and help fuel a better view of mental health for the future. No longer will it be a stigma one day, if the critical information gets out there and people can put faces to the diagnoses. Just like HIV and Aids. No longer is there that HUGE stigma like there was 20 years ago. Sexual orientation, same thing. cancer, same thing.
Knowledge is the key not picky choosing of who to tell what to. If you had a heart condition would you not tell that to someone? or if you broke your hand and were asked how, same deal. You help remove the stigma BY TELLING. Never forget that. and together we can all be advocates and speak volumes of what it really is like to be bipolar, or have eating or anxiety disorders, etc...
I agree, at some point, I just don't care any more. (The exception, of course, being work. That's a whole other kettle of wax.)
"But here’s the thing, are we really scared of their ignorance and hate or deep down inside is there a little voice inside of us saying that we’re “bad” and “scary” because we’re mentally ill."
I think that's a really great question to ask ourselves. For years, I hated talking about dissociative identity disorder. I railed against the misconceptions and stereotypes and genuinely believed public (mis)perception was what kept me in the closet about my mental illness. But I don't think it's a coincidence that when I finally made peace with my diagnosis, my need to hide it disintegrated. All those misconceptions and stereotypes still run rampant. It's just that I don't care on a personal level anymore.
"Because on some level, their blind ignorance seeps in. And we just can’t let that happen."