This past week I was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat, which I’ll take any day over an inpatient psych stay. I noticed two distinct reactions from my family and friends that stood out to me. The first was genuine concern, and the second was almost like “here we go again.” Both reactions served to illustrate stigma around mental illness.
The first reaction, that of genuine concern, was surprising to me. One particular person, who never asked how I was doing during my 10 or so inpatient psych stays, got on the phone and asked how I was and told me to take it easy. I already knew that this person didn’t really respect mental illness as a real thing, but seemed to think it involved laziness, weakness, or character flaws of the individual. But to see the stark contrast between the response I got for a mental condition, and the response I got for a physical condition, was shocking. I don’t blame this person, as many people do not understand mental illness. I myself didn’t really understand it for a long time, even while suffering from it. Some people believe that you can just think your way out of it, or push through it. They don’t realize that mental illness is not “in your head.” It is a brain disorder that is as real as any physical condition. Try telling a diabetic to think his or her blood sugar down. That’s not to say that taking certain actions in one’s life will not help to manage or even heal an illness. I am only saying that the illness is a real thing.
The second type of reaction that I got from people was as if I was the cause of my irregular heartbeat. It was like “here we go again,” Joshua’s not dependable at work, he’s being hospitalized again. This was a more subtle reaction, but I noticed that some people didn’t take my physical condition seriously. Maybe they were fed up with my problems, or maybe they were just used to me being hospitalized, but whatever it was, I felt as if the blame were on me. It was as if the stigma around mental illness were being generalized to other areas of my life.
These two distinct reactions that I noticed from certain members of my family and friends illustrated to me that stigma around mental illness is still alive and kicking. Awareness around mental illness needs to be raised and the word has to get out. One of the most powerful realizations that I had while amidst psychotic episodes, was that I still felt like me inside. I was the same person that I was as a child, or in college. I didn’t suddenly become someone else, though it may have appeared that way to people around me. It was still me, only my experiences were not the same. The world didn’t make sense anymore, and my thoughts and emotions were running rampant, but that was all “outside” of me. Deep inside, at the core of my being, nothing had changed.
My wish is that more and more family members and friends, healthcare workers, and patients themselves, realize that a person is not to blame for his or her illness. People should not be ashamed to say “I have a mental illness.” There needs to be an acceptance around it. I know that people are afraid of it, because people are afraid of what they don’t understand, but we can face our fears together. I know that I am a lot less scared of my illness now, than I was when it first started. It doesn’t have the same power over me that it had when it was “new” to me. For those of you suffering from or affected by mental illness, know that it can get better. There is hope, and part of that journey is helping to change the stigma around mental illness for the better.