Introduction to Stigma and Advocacy

Who I am is not my mental illness; however, mental illness is a part of who I am. I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and anxiety. In the last five years, I have been hospitalized four times. I suffer from suicidal thoughts, manic episodes, depressive episodes, intense flashbacks, emotional outbursts, restless sleep, and constant worry. There are also periods of stability, but even on the best day, I must constantly manage my symptoms for fear of downward spiral.

Advocating for mental health is important to me for many reasons. When I share my experience, I stand up for myself and for my loved ones. I play a role in fighting stigma. Sharing my story builds confidence within myself. Most importantly, I have the right to decide what my illness means to me and the role it will play in my life.

The more I become involved with my own mental health, the more predominately the stigma of mental illness stands out. Stigma is defined as a sign of disgrace or discredit, which sets a person apart from others. It brings a sense of shame to its victims and increases the chances of self-stigmatization. It is a direct result of ignorance. By educating others and speaking out, then we can diminish the problem of stigma. I want to make a difference in how we view mental illness as a society.

There are people who believe that mental illness does not exist or that it is “all in your head.” This thought process is potentially damaging to people who live with mental diseases and disorders. The first step in reducing stigma is to acknowledge that mental illness exists.

Mental health is the measurement of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional wellness. How we cope with stress, how we make choices, and how we care for our mental state all relate to mental health. Every year, there is a campaign for mental health awareness. Not mental illness awareness, but mental health awareness. Everybody has mental health.

According to the World Health Organization, “one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.” This amounts to 450 million people globally who currently live with a mental health condition and mental health disorders are among the leading cause of disability worldwide (“Mental disorders affect one in four people”).

Mental illnesses are conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, or mood. They range from mood disorders like depression to personality disorders like borderline personality disorder. They include eating disorders and substance abuse. The list goes on.

While my diagnoses are helpful to manage my everyday life, they have become labels that others try to define me with. With these labels, I have faced a multitude of stigma. I have been told that if I believed in God and prayed, my mental illness would go away. I have been told that exercise is more effective than medications. That I am making my mental illness up for attention. This is all part of stigma and the lack of understanding that society has about mental illness. My religious and spiritual beliefs do not correlate to my mental illness. People of all faiths live with mental illness every day. Exercise is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but taking medications are also important for those of us who need them. And I would never make this up. I would never lie about feeling suicidal for attention. I would much rather be healthy.

Society views mental illness in a grotesque and distorted way. Mental illness is portrayed as a weakness, a defect, a character flaw. As if it were controllable, or a choice. There is a need to see mental illness for what it is: an illness, a disease, a disorder, a sickness. When we use words like sickness or disorder to label mental illness, it becomes a medical condition  that is not something we ask for. It also becomes treatable and manageable. There is no cure for mental illness, but when we treat it like an illness, lives can be saved.

If a person does not live with mental illness, the probability is high that they know someone who does. Mental illness, like mental health, affects everybody. That is why we as a society need to educate ourselves to better understand the issue. Those of us with mental illness need to advocate and share our stories in order to normalize the conversation. Every time we reach out and share our stories, we weaken the stigma associated with mental illness.

When I began sharing my experience on social media, something happened. People began to reach out to me, thanking me for sharing my story. I felt empowered. And then, people began to share their own stories and I watched as my newsfeed transformed into advocacy, support, and a platform of strength.

I continue my advocacy in hopes of reaching those who need help, those who do not believe in mental illness, and those who are unsure about sharing their story. My hopes are high for reducing the stigma of mental illness, but that hope is something I hang on to. I believe that diminishing the stigma of mental illness is possible.

So share your experience, tell your story, reach out. Your voice can make a difference.

 

Work Cited

“Mental Disorders Affect One in Four People.” World Health Organization,

World Health Organization, 29 July 2013, http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre

/press_release/en/.

 

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