It is a frustrating thing to live in a world that encourages us to mask struggle and pain, and where flaws, failures, and tragedies are spoken about in hushed tones. Our painful secrets hide the feelings we all experience but try to ignore -- grief, shame, guilt.
We grow up being told not to cry, to always look on the bright side, and to endure with a smile on our faces. We are fed phrases like:
“Just be happy.”
"It could be worse.”
“You’ll get over it.”
We are encouraged to only share our wins, to compare ourselves to others, to define what “being normal” means, and then we associate it with success and happiness. We begin to turn away from others when faced with discomfort and pain, believing it means failure, believing it means you’re not worthy or good.
And so these wounds, still with us but left unattended to, convince us that maybe it’s better to pretend they’re not there.
It’s no surprise, then, that mental health stigma exists in a world that discourages the recognition and acceptance of pain and treats people differently because of it.
Stigma is a harmful weapon. Stereotypes and judgments of those with mental illness perpetuate stigma and shame people into silence. It causes people to suffer in fear and solitude because they learn that it’s not “acceptable,” “normal,” or “natural” to express their feelings to others.
Stigma was identified as a public health concern 15 years ago, and people with mental illness are still being perceived as dangerous, irresponsible, and incapable because this stigma is cemented throughout our lives. Whether it’s the comments from your classmates like “she’s crazy” and “he’s off his rocker” to describe others, a cultural belief that mental illness doesn’t exist at all, the whispers from your neighbors that someone is “just being dramatic” and “attention-seeking.”
The movies depict villains with mental illness or an implication that mental illness is somehow your fault. Stigma is continuing to be weaved into our communities -- and it’s killing us.
My Journey Through Stigma
As someone who has lived with depression for nearly 10 years now, I have lived with self-stigma that began the moment I got my diagnosis. I’d never been explicitly judged for my depression, but society had taught me it wasn’t OK to be different in this way. Combined with my perfectionist tendencies, I began to feel as though I was never good enough. I didn’t see my depression as an illness but as a character flaw.
When my symptoms appeared, I felt immense guilt for not functioning at my “normal” level. I couldn’t make it through a day without a nap. I couldn’t make it through an afternoon without crying. I couldn’t shake the constant rattling of sadness, emptiness, and loneliness in my head. I had to take medications to stay alive. And somehow my brain still couldn’t acknowledge the fact that my depression was a legitimate, serious medical condition that was out of my control and needed to be treated. To me, this all meant that I was a failure.
What I’ve learned most throughout my recovery journey is that vulnerability is the most powerful thing we can equip ourselves with to decrease stigma.
When I started writing about my depression on a personal blog in 2015, the response I received was surprising. It was a shocking realization that I wasn’t alone in my pain and sadness. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers were connecting with my words and feeling less alone in their own struggles.
They were telling me about their similar feelings, their recent diagnoses, and their shame. They were asking me questions and telling me that I helped them realize they needed to try therapy or tell their parents about what they were going through. Many of them hadn’t considered the possibility of mental illness until they had read my posts. It was astonishing that my words had helped people realize that their wounds were worth acknowledging.
My words affirmed the fact that in some capacity, all of us are struggling and working through pain -- and it’s OK. I began sharing more content to help others learn about and recognize their own mental health for the first time. I had learned a strong antidote for stigma -- vulnerability.
Every time I share my experiences with depression, I realize there is so much power in sharing our stories. Being honest with others about our own struggles makes room for their pain and lets them into a space where mental illness is not a weakness.
Vulnerability helps people know that their pain is valid and worthy of support and care. That they’re not an embarrassment or a failure because of mental illness. It breaks down stigma because it creates a chain reaction of connecting with and helping each other through the pain. It has the power to encourage someone to seek treatment for the first time, call the crisis hotline, or live another day.
Vulnerability invites us into a world where we are safe to fail, be honest, express sadness, ask for help, and have flaws. It’s a world where we can acknowledge mental illness and support others by sharing the hope within it.
It’s a world where we finally silence stigma, where people get the help they need and deserve, and where we are encouraged to help someone instead of judging them. I know we can create this kind of world, but I cannot do it alone. It’s something we’ll have to do together.
Photo Credit: Konstantin Sud / Eyeem Premium via Getty Images
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