That’s Right, We’re Gonna Fight
The world is changing. It’s a very different world than it was even five years ago; the specter of AIDS is diminishing due to good medicines and prevention of transmission. Fortunately, equality for all is becoming the standard by which we judge a nation — our own and other’s. Most rational people understand that the unity of people is infinitely stronger when the members of the community work together for noble yet realistic aims.
Yet recognition and understanding of the needs of those of us with mental illnesses isn’t keeping pace with other movements. Stigma is rampant and visible even today although perhaps one could argue that things are somewhat better and maybe it’s true to some degree. But stigma is not only imposed from without, but a thing with which we constrain ourselves.
I recently looked up the definition for the word stigma. It began as a mark — a physical mark placed on someone that was different. Lepers, for example. Madmen. Harlots and idol worshipers. Anyone that’s different from you.
People often fear what they don’t understand. They shun the things they fear, make warding signs against them, throw those afflicted with these stigma into prison, to a colony or worse, execute them. People are often reactionary and do not take the time to consider facts or sensible means of dealing with their fears.
As a person that suffers from bipolar disorder, I have plenty of experience in dealing with unrealistic attitudes toward fears — fears that I have created myself, or fears that others have regarding me. I assure you, we can be our own worst enemy on many, many levels.
Excuse Me? What Did You Say?
That’s right. Fear makes us irrational and that’s a great danger. When we are the first to attach a stigma to ourselves, we don’t allow ourselves to truly heal. We perpetually play victim and we are the ones who allow it.
By not standing up, admitting that we have a problem, seeking answers and understand and relating our issues to those around us in the community, we stigmatize ourselves. And that in turn allows others to ‘run with the ball’, as it were. We give them tacit permission to treat us without respect — which is just what we are doing to ourselves when we stigmatize our mental illness.
We have to break away from this kind of thinking. If we’re making every effort to understand our illness and to come to healing, then why should we not make these efforts understood by our family and friends? After all, our family and friends are part of the community. Educating them, asking them to be advocates against stigma associated with mental illness and asking them for understanding is the first step because we need understanding and support.
What That? Speak Up!
Once we stop ourselves from allowing self-stigmatization, we begin to reach out in meaningful ways to others. We cannot have the attitude of being a victim. We have to do everything we can to stand tall and let others know that we are not defined by our disease, rather we are people that happen to have a disease. We will not be ruled by a disease. We are stronger than that. We are able to define ourselves as people first.
I Protest! I Protest!
There are many forms of advocacy. But as with all protestation, advocacy is the beginning. When you understand, when you know the effects of mental illnesses and the dire circumstances in which people often find themselves when confronted with these illnesses.
Discrimination at work. Misunderstandings. Chastisement. Rejection. Outright bullying and indignity. These are but a few of the vagaries that those with mental illness suffer on a regular basis. But there’s so much more to that story. It takes uneducated, uncaring people to wage war on those of us who are mentally ill. It takes ignorance.
And that’s what we must fight against. It can be as simple as helping someone to understand what you’re going through. That’s a beginning. It’s like gossip; tell one person and the story spreads.
Wow, You’re Weird-Looking
I sometimes think that this is how some people look at me. Let’s face it, anyone that’s been saddled with being mentally ill has had to feel others staring at you (or imagined it). The truth is that there have been many times I believed that people thought I was a Martian.
But I’m not a Martian. In fact, look at me and you see just another person. One of millions that suffer from mental illness. But if you were to ask me about it with sincere interest, I would tell you of the times of great insecurity, of pain and fear. It might change your thinking about what people with mental illness face. Maybe it will help you to sympathize or even empathize, come to some understanding of the human issues that are amplified and distorted by these illnesses.
President Clinton is absolutely correct. Stigmatization is shameful. But working toward changing this is a task I have recently found, not only because I am bipolar, but because it is an injustice to treat others, ill or not, without respect, dignity and honor.
I’m On It
It isn’t always easy to be an advocate. To be vocal, to rise above the fray and stand up for something that you believe in is to draw attention to yourself. But we must draw attention to the fact that each and every day people with mental illness are cast off, disregarded, disrespected and abused (both physically and mentally).
I cannot speak for others; only they can speak for themselves. But I can speak on their behalf even if I cannot speak directly for them. I can do that because I am a member of the mentally ill community. I can educate those that need it. I can write, can speak to representatives, I can decide to do whatever it takes because I am not only a member of the mentally ill community, I am a member of The Community. And as such I will continue to educate when I can, to gain strength from the understanding of others, to help where it is needed and to be proud of the gains I have made against bipolar disorder.
But we need more. We need others, too. We need them because eventually, they themselves may be diagnosed with a mental illness and it is we who have educated ourselves that can help them if the need arises.