It’s the buzz word of the decade. Everyone is concerned about raising awareness and stamping out stigma. I must confess, I am passionate about this but I am also weary. It has been a long fight and stigma is still very much alive and kicking. At times, it feels easier to turn the other cheek and prepare for the next onslaught. Stigma is relentless and exhausting.
But we must carry on fighting the good fight to abolish stigma! And I mean abolishing stigma about ALL mental health concerns, not just depression and anxiety. I’m talking eating disorders, personality disorders, sexual dysfunction disorders, substance use disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, the whole damn lot.
Here are some examples of stigma I have encountered both in my personal and professional life.
SIX times I experienced stigma personally:
- My boss is incredibly supportive and kind but also very ignorant about mental health conditions. She believes that all depression can be cured with herbal supplements and she thinks that people with mental health issues can’t function as well as other people. As such, I feel like I can’t disclose my bipolar diagnosis to her despite occasionally needing some support in the workplace.
- I have been to the same medical centre for about six years. When I started seeing the psychiatrist there a year ago, I noticed a change in the way some of the staff addressed me. They always hurry me into a private room away from the rest of the patients, they push me to the front of the queue and they treat me with sympathy. It reminds me that I’m different and I get the sense that they think I’m helpless and unpredictable.
- I have been in a work meeting discussing a young woman who had presented to our service with suicidal ideation. She was experiencing depression after coming off her bipolar medication a year earlier. My colleague said with exasperation and anger, “Why do these people with bipolar keep coming off their fucking meds and then coming back for help?” Her scathing words and disapproval made me feel like I should be ashamed of my bipolar and for not wanting to take my own medication at times.
- A friend who didn’t know about my addiction issues told me that people with addictions are liars and manipulators. I felt so much anger and shame and comments like this may have contributed to me not seeking help sooner. I felt like a bad person.
- During a particularly dark episode of depression, I was told by family members to “snap out of it”, “get on with it” and to “stop being self-centred”. I felt like a burden. I felt tremendous guilt for being such horrible company and for being so irritable at them all the time.
- When I mention my bipolar to some people they say “everyone has mood swings” or “we’re all a little crazy”. This trivialises my experiences making me feel stupid, self-indulgent and invalidated. It makes me feel like I’m making it up for attention or special treatment. It also makes me less likely to tell people when I’m having symptoms because I feel like I won’t be taken seriously.
SIX times I witnessed stigma in my job as a mental health and social worker:
- I was with a client *Jack waiting for our food in a cafe and he was experiencing hallucinations. He was quite content though and was pacing the shop floor mumbling to himself. A cafe worker came over and berated Jack like a child for pacing and getting in people’s way and he told Jack to sit down. Jack was humiliated and did what he was told. I felt that the worker saw Jack’s messy appearance and saw him talking to himself and somehow felt justified to speak down to him.
- I took another client *Robby who was experiencing hallucinations to the optometrist. Throughout the entire appointment, the optometrist looked directly at me and asked me questions about Robby’s health. I kept saying “please ask Robby, he can tell you” but the optometrist kept on speaking with me as if Robby wasn’t even there. It broke my heart to see Robby ignored as if he didn’t even exist.
- I currently work in child protection. I commonly hear other workers blame a mental health condition for child abuse, especially Borderline Personality Disorder. While mental health issues absolutely impacts upon parenting, people with mental health issues are not automatically child abusers.
- On many occasions, I have advocated for clients who were not invited to their own case conferences, or whose opinions about their own lives (like where they should live) are dismissed as if they can’t make their own decisions. Occasionally, people are so unwell that they do need others to make decisions for them for a while. But their voices should still be heard and they should still be seen when decisions are been made about them.
- I have seen some staff members in a hospital’s mental health ward yell orders at clients as if they are children to be controlled. I have seen distressed clients locked into rooms and isolated causing them even more distress. I have seen clients lined up for their medications like cattle, having their names and medications called out for everyone to hear whether they like it or not. It terrifies me that one day I may be hospitalised and treated like a child or like I don’t have a brain.
- I have seen clients who have been psychotic but otherwise healthy and happy. Their hallucinations make other people uncomfortable and concerned, so they are forced to take powerful drugs against their will to control their hallucinations. I have had a young client newly in love forced to take medications that made him incontinent; another whose medications stunted his creativity when art was the only activity that gave his life any meaning; and others who were sedated for up to 18 hours a day. None of these clients wanted their medications, preferring to live with their symptoms over the medication side effects, but they were not given that choice.
Let’s stamp out stigma!
Look, stigma is always going to exist, the same way racism, sexism, homophobia and every other kind of prejudice will always exist. People will be ignorant, intentionally and unintentionally. People are a product of their environments and their experiences. But we can still improve on our current situation which just isn’t good enough.
But we are heading in the right direction! The recovery movement has helped us greatly and advocacy, consumer representatives and peer workers are ever more present in our mental health systems. Concepts like “client-centered” and “strengths-based” approaches to mental health work has helped to shift our thinking away from the deficit-based medical model. We are living in a time where online resources and social media are throwing mental health issues into the faces of those who would otherwise remain blind to them.
We are on the right track. And I am in the privileged and unique position of being able to help reduce stigma in both my personal and professional life, as a person living with bipolar and as a person working with people with a wide range of mental health conditions. I am so lucky! I intend to write more specifically about what else we need to do to keep reducing stigma, so keep an eye out for a future post about that!
Image by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash