Stigma and Chronic Mental Illness

Lets take a moment to acknowledge the wacky little elephant in the room. There’s obviously a stigma surrounding mental illness. We all know it.  Anyone that grows up with mental illness, or has a kid suffering from it, or even a friend, knows that stigma is real. Frankly, given how many people suffer from some form of mental health problem in our world, it’s surprising that we still shy away from the subject.  And yet, we sure do.

As patients with chronic illnesses, we face choices every day between what to share and what not to share. We face the knowledge that everything we admit carries a weight, a perception that we can’t control.  Everything we admit can change how people think of us. As frustrating and horrible as it can sound, just admitting you have depression can carry a bunch of different meanings for different people. Some will truly understand, but some will call you lazy or tell you you’re faking it, or any number of other things.  When you admit anxiety, they may tell you you’re overreacting, or to just calm down, or stop being so childish. When you admit Bipolar, or Schizophrenia, or one of the other “big” name mental illnesses, people tend to run.

While this can be a hot topic for some, lately it’s become personally relevant to me.  Ultimately, it’s a huge part of why I wanted to start this blog.  I don’t want my children to grow up feeling the same way I have over the years. As I’ve said before, chances are good that they’ll end up with the same or similar illnesses to mine, and if that’s the case, I need to try to build a world as stigma-free as possible. In addition, I’ll be returning to the “real world” soon, and that means I have to decide how to account for all my time away.

Let’s look at the two primary kinds of stigma we must face. The perceived and the self-induced.

Self-Induced Stigma

So, what is self-induced stigma? Let me ask you some questions to illustrate.

  • Have you ever felt guilty for calling out of work on a severe depressive day?
  • Have you been scared to ask for help or felt you were weak for doing so?
  • Have you stopped taking prescribed meds because you feel “normal” people shouldn’t need them?

Those are examples of self-induced stigma. It is important to know that just because it is self-induced, that doesn’t mean it’s intentional.  Many of us have been taught over the years that if we have a mental health issue, we’re somehow broken or not normal.  This can lead to a lot of internalized guilt and shame which can lead to decisions that aren’t necessarily healthy.

Plus side: you can totally do something about it, although it’s definitely a challenge because retraining your brain is a lot of work. However, there are a lot of tools out there to help with that.  I’m hoping as we go along in this blog I’ll be able to share some of them that I’ve picked up over the years.  They may not all help you, but if any of them do then it’s totally worth it. For now, remember you are doing the best you can and that’s all anyone can hope for!

Perceived Stigma

When we look at perceived stigma, we realize this is the bit that we can’t control as easily: how people perceive us.  We can share our lives and our needs and our illnesses, but there’s nothing we can do to change what others think about us.  That’s the perception part, and arguably the part that hurts the most. It’s really rough to accept that we can’t change anything about how people see us, at least not in the immediate sense.

Everyone brings their own biases to the world, and mental illness is definitely one of those arenas. We can do our best to present ourselves as capable, reliable, etc., but they will still color it through their own lenses. In those situations, the best we can do is pick our battles, and our friends, accordingly.  If you don’t feel comfortable explaining to your boss or coworkers exactly why you were in the hospital, you really don’t have to.  If you don’t want to answer why you were sick, or even how you’re feeling today, you don’t have to.

Remember, though, a little honesty to the right person can go a long way. And a little visibility can also go a long way, if you’re in a safe enough position to do it. By sharing our stories, we are able to help reduce the stigma a little bit.  We teach people about our health and needs.  We educate them on how to support us, and with each step, we get a little better at taking care of ourselves.

So, what do we do?

Well, as always, that’s up to you.  For my part, I created this blog.  Education is important to me, as is sharing our stories and building strength from each other. Who better to learn from than other people who wake and fight the same or similar battles to ours?  If you want to help in that, continue sharing and responding.  Start conversations with each other and tell us what it’s like for you.

Do you deal with self-induced stigma? How about perceived? What does it look like for you and how does it affect your life?

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6 thoughts on “Stigma and Chronic Mental Illness

  1. Such an important topic to talk about, and this post is extremely well written. Looking forward to seeing more unique & important content like this!

    1. I appreciate that! I’m working hard to open up conversations about the importance of mental health, as well as how chronic mental illnesses affect parents. Thank you for taking the time to read!

  2. My personal experience— self induced stigma: crying in a parking lot because I got too overwhelmed trying to help my kids pick out new clothes and feeling like a complete failure because I had to send my boyfriend in to the store with them because I just flat out could not handle it.
    Perceived stigma: “you’re a control freak” “can’t you just go with the flow and stop worrying” “the dishes get clean no matter how you load the dishwasher” “everything doesn’t have to be folded the way you want it, just relax”

    Obsessive compulsive disorder over here.

    1. <3 But hooray for a boyfriend that could go in to the store to help them! I get so easily overwhelmed, as you well know, and it's hard not to take it personally and feel like a failure, but the logical part of your brain knows I'm not. You did what you needed to keep healthy and safe and your kids got taken care of too. In my book, that's a parenting win. And, in case you're curious, I get the dishwasher lecture too.

  3. Family should be the first to understand the problem. I don’t like people in my personal space. My family asks if they can have a hug because they know i don’t like to be touched. Then it is up to me if I can handle it. I let Shandy just leave her dishes in the sink because I know how she is with the dishwasher. It isn’t a problem for me to load them for her. You should never feel guilty for doing or asking for what you need to be able to survive. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically first. Self, Spouse, Family then Clan. Best recipe of life to live by.

    1. I agree that family should be some of the first to understand the problem (chosen or blood family, whichever), but I also know it doesn’t always happen. When I was in Partial, it became amazingly clear that some people have very poor support systems, and when you don’t know for sure how to self advocate, it can get even harder. I feel quite blessed to have a family that gets it as much as mine! <3

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