Surviving Mental Health Stigma

Success and failure are pretty common words in our everyday lives and they’re also prominent in conversations about mental health. When we see someone in recovery of any sort, we say they’re successful; we do this with ourselves, too. It’s often only when we’re acknowledging our own mental health recovery progress that failure comes into the mix. We feel like failures if we can’t succeed like those around us; we feel like failures if we have setbacks. It is because of that that I feel it would be better to remove the words success and failure from our mental health vocabulary.
People’s notions of what someone with a mental illness looks like includes ideas of how they think a person with mental illness should behave. The idea that you can tell someone with a mental illness by looking at them comes from both misunderstanding and stigma. But, as more and more people discuss realities like high-functioning mental illness and so forth, people are beginning to broaden their understanding. However, we need to delve deeper into the idea that someone can look like they have a mental illness. The fact is, mental illness looks different in everyone, and I don’t mean simply from one illness to another, but within the same illness.
In today’s day and age, it’s easier than ever for people to share their mental illness stories online. Whether it’s sharing a struggle, a small victory, a big triumph, or a plea for help, stories about mental illness are aplenty. While many call those who share their mental illness stories brave and strong, there are also those who tear them down, saying they should keep the information to themselves--and offline. If sharing mental illness stories annoys you, read on.
A post made by a woman named Madelyn Parker about the response from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company she works for after she said she was taking mental health sick days has gone viral. The compassion and understanding of web developing company CEO Ben Congleton toward Parker taking time for her mental health has drawn a wealth of virtual applause and admiration. There are, however, naysayers taking issue with the post, and one response, in particular, I’ve seen is riddled with stigma around taking mental health sick days from work.
As I said in the first two parts of this series, parents and guardians want to help their children through their struggles, and that includes knowing how to help children cope with mental health stigma. In the previous installments, I discussed how you can make sure you’re not inadvertently stigmatizing your child and then how to talk with your child about mental illness stigma. There are plenty more things that parents can do to help their children facing mental illness stigma but to conclude I want to touch on a few more things that can be done right now.
In the first part of this three-part blog, I wrote about what stigma can look like for children and how it affects them, as well as your first step as a parent or guardian to a child in this situation, which is to make sure you are not inadvertently stigmatizing your child. In this part, let’s take a look at ways you can help your child or children understand the mental illness, stigma, and self-stigma.
When I was a child dealing with mental health stigma, I didn't really know what it was that set me apart. As a young adult, I have a better perspective on the mental health stigma your child faces. Although I’m not a parent or guardian of a child facing mental health stigma, I have a clear memory of how stigma affected me as a child. Plus, I've seen what my parents have gone through as I lived with mental illness at a young age. I also read posts and hear from parents and guardians who have children that suffer or live with mental health problems and it's heartbreaking to witness as they grapple with trying to help their child and feeling powerless to do so. So when I can, I try to help. I hope some of the tips that follow are ones you find helpful as you navigate your child’s mental illness and the potential mental health stigma your child can face.
Playing the what-if game isn’t always the greatest of ideas, especially for those of us with mental illnesses that cause us to get stuck in the what-if mindset. But humor me for a second (or rather this post) because while playing the what-if game can be detrimental, I think there is some good to it sometimes and in this case, I think it’s one of those times. What if mental illness stigma never goes away? What then?
Coping with a breakup after telling someone you love, whether it be a friend, family member, or romantic partner, that you have a mental illness is never easy. The scariest time is right before I tell anyone about my mental illnesses. It is always thoughts like “What if they think less of me?”, “What if they suddenly don’t want to be around me anymore?”, “They're going to see me as a burden.” that make me anxious. You could probably name many other anxious thoughts and I could say I thought them, too. Ultimately, these fears of a breakup are based on mental health stigma, and coping with a breakup due to mental health stigma may be the most heartbreaking of all.
Part of the romanticism of mental illnesses is that someone who is mentally ill can be cured by love or that someone can be a cure for someone else's mental illness. We see this in media and it seeps into real life to the point that people don’t understand why we can’t stop being depressed or anxious for them (How to Cope With a Loved One's Mental Illness). What people need to realize is although being loved can make dealing with mental illness easier, love does not cure mental illness.