On Stigma

I guess I should make it clear from the get-go that this is going to focus on mental issues, though you could probably use the message for any other kind of stigma too. I don’t know yet, I’ve just begun to write this post. 😛

This is a topic close to my heart. It’s one I’ve failed to voice too frequently. In fact, I failed yesterday when an opportunity presented itself.

A big promoter of stigma is false information – a thing we spread or allow to keep spreading too easily. So. This is my chance to redeem myself and add some facts to my ramblings. Please click the links, learn something, and hopefully, understand certain illnesses better.

stigma

Stigma. It’s an ugly thing, but it exists because we allow it to. Because we make mental (or other) issues ugly, the people suffering feel ashamed that they have said issue. Because our grandfathers fought in wars and never dealt with the horrors they saw, so as not to be perceived as effeminate – another horrible stigma, we were raised not to showcase what we feel.

We make people afraid to admit what they’re going through because we put a negative spin on mental issues. I grew up as part of a generation who didn’t go to see a therapist, or take medication for mental illness, because what would the people say?

Why do people believe OCD is simply about arranging things or washing hands? Well, because we spread myths and joke about it. We lessen it by making it about no less than arranging things or washing hands. We watch Monk or laugh at Sheldon’s antics on the Big Bang Theory. Don’t get me wrong, those shows are doing an admirable job of spreading awareness, but it showcases only the compulsion part of OCD, and downplays the obsession part. There would be no compulsion without the obsession. And no, being cleanly or perfectionistic has nothing to do with the obsession (because when it’s solely about the cleaning, it’s a different illness).

We promote stigma by calling the thin girl anorexic, because anybody who hinges towards the leaner side of the spectrum must have an eating disorder. Right? Well, no. That doesn’t stop us from throwing around the term as if we’re all experts, without considering that not all people with anorexia look anorexic. There’s much more to this illness than just refusing to eat – it goes with intolerable amounts of anxiety and often depression. Also, more myths than I have time to discuss here today.

We promote stigma by saying things like don’t be a baby, or just get over it, or it’s not that big a deal, when in all honesty, we have no idea what the other person is dealing with. Anxiety or depression both have so many flavours that these illnesses may manifest in any number of ways in different people. No matter how it surfaces, or how it’s suppressed, any form of depression or anxiety or *insert illness here* causes great amounts of anguish to the person suffering from it.

I can add schizophrenia, panic attacks and bipolar disorder to this list of stigmatised illnesses/events, without having to think too hard about which memes I’ve recently seen. You can probably name a few off the top of your head too.

Emotions and mental issues are complex. Things that one person may perceive as trivial, could be monumental for the next. For example, putting your feet out the door, or going to sleep, or eating dinner. We can’t just say ‘get over it’, because getting over it may be the biggest hurdle someone has yet faced.

We also need to learn that every emotion is worth feeling. Telling someone not to be sad doesn’t help. They have the right to feel whatever they’re feeling, and all we can do is support them. No matter how excessive or stupid it might seem to us.

If it were everyday practice to belittle other serious illnesses, like cancer, I bet there’d be a stigma around that too. “If you see someone to help cure this thing, please just don’t tell anyone. Please suffer alone and don’t implicate me.” No. When someone is diagnosed, we pull together and help that person. We ask for prayers, we raise funds, we hold hands and we comfort. We love, we support and we’re there. It’s important.

Mental health is just as important and just as dangerous as any other physical illness. It kills too.

Sadly, one of the biggest culprits in spreading stigma is often religion or religious groups. People so easily say that if you just believe a little harder, the mental thing will go away. These same people acknowledge that you need to get treatment for physical ailments, and go to doctors when they’re ill themselves, but continue to guilt the people with mental illnesses into suffering alone. Nobody enduring any kind of illness, mental or physicial, needs judgement added to their plate. They’re dealing with enough, so maybe show a little compassion. You know, that thing most religions preaches.

I heard an interview once where someone said you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to walk it off, so why do we say this where mental issues are concerned? If someone needs insulin, we don’t tell them not to take it. It’s the same with mental illnesses – if someone needs therapy or medication to help them cope with an illness, we need to support them when they start taking it.

I guess what I want to achieve with this post is to bring this message across – educate yourself. Learn the facts about mental illnesses (or anything else that is stigmatised) before you share that meme, or make that joke, or tell someone to hide/suppress what they’re feeling. When we understand the dynamics of something, we’re much less likely to belittle it. When we offer tolerance instead of ridicule, people are more likely to open up and share what they’re going through. This helps that person cope.

I’m reminded of a moment in The Return of the King, when Frodo and Sam are are the foot of Mount Doom. The ring is killing Frodo. It’s too heavy and he’s struggling with the burden. He can’t go on. But, he has Sam. Sam knows he can’t carry the ring, but bless his little hobbit heart, he has the answer.

“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

We could all do much better if we were more like Sam.

To those of you out there who do support sufferers of mental illnesses, I commend you. Please continue helping, spreading awareness and being awesome, unjudgemental people. Together, we can squash stigmas and help more people.

Yolandie

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