Stigma and Mental Illness go together like Siegfried and Roy. Inextricably linked and just as just as likely to describe the wounded. In a world where we casually throw around the words ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’, ‘lunatic’ and ‘schitzo’ to describe situations or people who are complicated and confusing, we often forget these words originate in terrible stigma. They are words defined to alienate and create otherness. To set us apart from those that carry their burden. Neurotypical folks might not even notice their use in everyday conversation, but as someone who lives with mental illness, these buzzwords catch my attention instantly. They trigger feelings of such deep shame and humiliation inside me such that for most of my life, I hid the extent of my illness from the people around me. I feared social isolation from my peers and the judgement of strangers and friends alike. I was afraid of them seeing me as purely a diagnosis. A label that inspired mistrust, persecution and negative beliefs about the kind of person I was. I know I’m not alone in these fears. Throughout my stays in the Psychiatric Hospital, I met a lot of people who lived with the same trepidation of disclosing their illness. It wasn’t an unusual phenomenon for people to keep their visits to hospital on the down low from extended family, friends and work colleagues. Any other kind of hospitalization would be fodder for Facebook updates and selfies hooked up to IV’s which would be met with cards filled with well wishes and deliveries of flowers. But a stay in a Psychiatric Hospital was often concealed as a week off work to “visit family” or “a retreat getaway for a fortnight”, anything but an admission to the Psych ward. Just like them, I kept my first stay in hospital under wraps, telling only a select few close friends who were aware of my battles with poor mental health, and even then, I worried what they would think of me. It was years of these apprehensions that dissuaded me from seeking inpatient treatment sooner.
Mental health stigma diminishes social supports for a lot of individuals with both chronic and acute mental illness. Not everyone is fortunate to have family or friends who understand an illness or injury you that isn’t visible to the naked eye. They’re expected to just ‘get it together’ or to ‘buck up’ and get on with things. They’re dismissed as ‘mad’ or written off as ‘a lost cause’. It’s this precise attitude that deters unwell individuals from seeking the help they need to recover from and manage their illness. I know when I’ve encountered these attitudes myself, it’s made me feel embarrassed and worthless. It’s only through the more frank and open discussion the community at large now conducts about mental illness, that some of the individuals that once wrote my diagnosis off as ‘all in my head’ now recognise psychiatric illness as a serious and detectable condition that affect not just me, but a great many individuals.
I recently saw Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billy Lourde, speak of shame and stigma as “enemies to progress”. Her mother was an incredible advocate for mental illness awareness, living and speaking candidly and with sometimes uncomfortable honesty about her journey with Bipolar disorder. It’s courageous individuals such as herself that paved the way for people like me, to live authentically and openly in a world where ‘crazy’ is still a 4 letter word.