I didn’t respond very well at our lunch table at the small Mexican restaurant with a few friends last week. I looked at her sharply and said, “Well, exactly what mental illness does he have anyway? I’m mentally ill too!”
Now that I’ve caught myself and thought about it, I’m confident that I’ll respond more kindly and appropriately the next time I hear a comment like that. She really meant no harm by her ill-informed comment. A lot of people like to use the stigma around mental illness as a verbal weapon.
That said, I really am sick of this disgusting, unenlightened, harmful thing that seems so ubiquitous in our culture. As far as I could tell, no one at our table was hurt from her comment. However, people that perpetuate this kind of talk only further emotionally beat down people who are already feeling the shame of mental illness, and may further discourage them from seeking help. Some portion of those who don’t get help die from suicide. So, my logic tells me that this horrific stigma leads to many deaths.
In a recent year, 827 individuals in my home state of Utah completed suicide. That’s almost three times more that the number of deaths from auto accidents. There is a healthy focus on preventing such deaths through discouraging drunk driving. Well, perhaps we all need reminders and encouragement not to perpetuate mental illness stigma. Perhaps this could prevent many deaths. Maybe billboard, public service announcements, and other mass communications could help. When I make my millions (but don’t hold your breath!) I could fund ,many such communications.
Occasionally, I see courageous acts of people that do give me hope. I see gutsy individuals who do the right thing despite the negativity. One came yesterday. I was manning a booth for NAMI Utah at a convention for educators. A young woman with long blond hair and a pleasant demeanor approached. She told me that she had been the head of the NAMI student organization at her college. She explained that earlier in her college years, she had spent time in the psychiatric ward of a hospital and was diagnosed with bipolar. Since then, counseling and medications have been helpful, and she was enjoying her first year of teaching high school.
I marvel at her good judgment and bravery. She not only did not allow stigma get in her way of getting to a better place, but she stared it down by being a mental health standard bearing among her college peers.
With people like her in the world, there is great hope that cultural progress will be made! The terrible stigma can be eradicated!