The Stigma

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Is anyone else sick and tired of the ignorant, judgmental stigma others attach to those of us with mental illness? I know I am. So here’s the question—what do we do about it, and how do we go about changing it? Think about that while I share my latest experience.

Last week a friend posted a question on Facebook. A woman answered the question by including a few details about a man who had sent her some very mean, degrading, down-right awful emails. She ended her response with, “Mental illness crazies.”

It felt as if someone had just stabbed me with a knife in the gut. Please be honest—is it just me, or does that sound like a very ignorant and generalized statement about mental illness? It makes it sound, to me, as if anyone with mental illness is crazy and anyone who does horrible, awful things must have mental illness. I hesitated to respond because I do tend to get hot-headed when it comes to things that are so deeply personal to me, but I thought of all the times I’ve seen or read such generalizations on TV or in books and couldn’t do anything about it. This time I could. So I did respond and told her how I felt, including that perhaps she should educate herself on the reality of mental illness and what it really is before she makes such statements about it.

Well, she commented back with her own heated response that she knows all about mental illness because she has family members who suffer from it. She also said that she didn’t include all of the details about this man and the horrible, abusive things he had emailed her. An abuser—that’s what she called him. She ended by saying that everyone who is an abuser has mental illness. I think I might have actually laughed! Again, it showed her true ignorance about mental illness. But then I suppose it’s not her fault that society has placed such an ill-defined, inappropriate, false stigma on the subject to which others can only assume is true. But the truth is that some people are just bad people, and that doesn’t mean they have mental illness. I’ve known several abusers, as the way she defined it, who did not have mental illness. They were just mean, crappy people. Everything in her response again generalized mental illness, making it sound like it’s a disease that turns normal people into “crazies” or people who do bad, horrible, abusive things.

I’ve seen this technique used in books before. The “bad guy” isn’t really bad, s/he’s just mentally ill. It perpetuates the stigma. But you know what? I am not a bad guy!I am not an abuser. I am a mother, a writer, a reader, a flute player, a human—and I have mental illness. That doesn’t mean I’m going out and committing crimes or becoming a creepy stocker or sending abusive emails to other people.

I guess one of the reasons why I struggle with this so much is that I feel like we’re expected to let the stigma stay out there and even grow. People are so uncomfortable with the subject of mental illness that they shy away from talking about it or helping those of us who have it. And yet, I’ve seen so many rush to the aid of people with other illnesses. If this woman on Facebook had instead said, “cancer-patient crazies,” no one would have stood for it! There would have been an immediate and immense backlash. So why should we, who have mental illness or have friends, family or those we care about with mental illness, have to stand for it? It seems like a double-standard, doesn’t it?

Now, I do feel bad that I got into an argument on my friend’s Facebook post. That was probably inconsiderate of me, considering she is one of my best friends, one of the few people in this world who I feel actually gets me, and I would never want to embarrass her. It’s just hard because, like I said, it felt as if someone had stabbed me in the gut with a knife. It hurt.

So, what do you, my readers, think? I’m not looking to be consoled or for a pat on the back. I want your true honesty. I can take it—whatever it is.

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