I tell my mental illness story with tattoos because they both tell stories and help us tell our stories. Those stories can be about anything, and countless people have gotten their skin permanently marked with representations of their journeys with mental illness, myself included. My tattoos give me the opportunity to share my mental illness story and talk about mental health in general. Most conversations are positive, but as with most things mental illness-related, stigma is never too far off.
Surviving Mental Health Stigma
If I were to ask you to picture someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, what would you imagine? My guess is someone wearing dark clothes with a haggard expression and overall looking like he or she are down on his or her luck. The image of someone who seems to have it all together might not come to mind at all. But, like mental illness, suicidal thoughts aren't reserved only for those whose circumstances "warrant" it. Suicidal ideation can and does affect anyone at any time, even when life is otherwise good.
It's not just those of us with mental illness who combat or want to combat mental health stigma. People in our support systems and others who may not have a connection to mental illness often want to do something as well. Maybe it's a matter of not knowing what to do or where to start, maybe it's something else. Whatever it is, if you fall into those categories, this post with tips to combat stigma is for you.
I'm guilty of discounting simple remedies for mental illness. I would always see something like changing a sleep pattern as simple in comparison to the complex nature of mental illness. I couldn't understand how one could truly make a difference on the other and saw people suggesting that it could as a gross misunderstanding of mental illness and ultimately a perpetuation of stigma. But sometimes the simple solutions are the ones we need to alleviate the symptoms and improve mental wellbeing, which is what I learned recently when I realized how much sleep affects my mental health.
When we talk about mental health often, we learn that we can deal with mental health stigma if it happens but it's not easy to talk about mental illness. Telling people about your mental illness makes it feel like you're inviting the world to blow up -- at least that's how it felt for me. I had such a long list of bad experiences and reactions to my mental illnesses, especially skin picking disorder, that it just seemed ludicrous to willingly tell somebody about them. Yet, repeatedly facing the potential of stigma both online and offline has taught me that the world won't end when I tell people I have mental illnesses and talk about mental health. And knowing that has made it easier to take on stigma every time.
I combat self-stigma with books about mental health because as much as I love the online world and the connections it's helped me make, there's something about a physical book that can't be beat. I often find myself looking for books when I want to read personal accounts of journeys with mental illness and health in general. It's not just about reading the stories though — I find I seek them out most when the noise in my head is too loud. Reading these kinds of stories actually helps me combat self-stigma drumming away in the back of my mind.
Many think of the bond between human and animal as a simple pet-owner or predator-prey relationship. For others, the connection is greater as service and support animals offer physical and mental assistance to humans. Yet, while many gaze upon service animals with respect, support animals are stigmatized as fake despite the help they offer people.
Sometimes when we think about how to stand up to stigma about mental health, I think we get too caught up in the idea of an outward battle against mental health stigma. We might forget that we can arm and armor ourselves against it. As I've written before, mental health stigma may never go away, so it's about equipping and molding ourselves to better be able to withstand it. It doesn't just happen with a snap of our fingers though; it's a process to take on and continuously work at. If you're needing encouragement or guidance to stand up to stigma, here are some things you can try.
These days, using the word trigger will probably elicit a few reactions: eye rolls, groans, and insults. Yes, there are people that take the word trigger seriously when used in conversations about mental illness, but, for the most part, it has become a derogatory thing that people use sarcastically to insinuate that people are too politically correct or soft. The negative side effect of that is that people who talk about mental illness triggers are also regarded with the same disregard when triggers can actually have serious impacts on people with mental health disorders.