Society still paints with a broad brush when it comes to The Other. We’re raised from an early age to be aware of our differences rather than our similarities, which, when misdirected, can result in such ugliness as racism, sexism, and ageism. Mental illness is the last target for intolerant behavior, the last quarry for the cruel, because mental illness by its nature knows no division.
Twenty-five years ago, or so, I received the basic stamp of “anxiety” and “depression” from some doctors doing what they could with a fifteen-year-old girl who didn’t know what was going on. In fact, my initial diagnosis came after six to eight months of checking for heart problems, anemia, food allergies, and “period problems.”
I am always living with mental illness. It doesn’t magically go away because I take medication. The drugs help me manage my symptoms. Therapy helps with questions about the effect of the symptoms on my psyche. Psychiatry helps with the basic practical details of the meds. It all keeps me out of the hospital, which I appreciate. Medicated, I’m better suited to navigate life’s challenges. I can almost feel normal.
As a child, I suffered from a panic disorder that went undiagnosed until I was 25. Because no one knew what was wrong with me, everything was wrong with me. Every symptom I displayed was labeled and classified as something else: learning disability, perfectionism, insecurity, processing disorders, hypochondriasis and on we go. I struggled with a self-criticism so intense I became trapped and stuck inside its horrifying whispers.
Even though I’d been going to the ER regularly for panic attacks, I hadn’t accepted that I was struggling with mental illness on any level. Stigma confronted me at every turn; I was dealing with the same stereotypes that anyone influenced by culture would. I couldn’t make sense of my life.
Now, that Jackie is in a better place, she has begun looking into work possibilities. However, the task is daunting, especially because she fears losing her government benefits, which provide a small but steady income per month and most importantly coverage of her schizophrenia medication, which is essential for her health. Since eligibility for these benefits can be affected by income, Jackie doesn’t want to risk losing those benefits because she knows staying healthy is critical.
My own belief is that a brighter future entails less stigma, more respect for the field, stronger evidence-based research and practice, and greater accessibility to services for all. Maybe then can we truly begin to release the burden that mental illness places on our society.
I advocate for myself, and am comfortable with my diagnosis, but I’m reluctant to offer it up casually, being concerned that the stigma against it will hinder any success I might have had in making a new friend. I wish it were different, so I approach it as such. Most of the time. Self-stigma tends to be the one area where I falter. Unwittingly, I will derail my own train, partially due to an inherent shyness, and otherwise to a general discomfort in my own skin.