May 19

Mental Health Month Blog Party: Two Kinds Of Stigma

The following post is reprinted here with permission from Third of a Lifetime, by Sarah E. Olson.

This post is offered as part of the Mental Health Month Blog Party today, May 18, 2011. You can find basic mental health resources at that link if you scroll down the page. You can also follow this Blog Party topic on Twitter today by searching for the hashtag #mhblogday.

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We should be long past the day when people are ostracized, ridiculed or feared for having a mental illness. But things which are difficult to see or to control are scary for some people, which says more about them than the people of whom they are fearful. We live in a culture that vilifies a lot of sometimes helpless and often unfortunate people: the homeless, people with AIDS, people with mental illnesses. People who often don’t have the financial or social support to overcome their situation.

Stigma: a. a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation. b. a mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease

Mental illness stigma has been a part of society for thousands of years. While we live in a time where people with mental illness are more free to talk about it and to find support than ever before, old assumptions and prejudgments die hard.

I see two types of mental illness stigma operating today. There’s the macro: generalized against segments of the population, it usually includes a few specific notorious people who are egged on by the media to act out in ways which serve to enforce stereotypes about all people with that condition. These are people who don’t represent us in any way, but create a cumulative impression upon the public about mental illness.

But there’s also the micro: what we, who are challenged with mental illnesses, often tell ourselves when discouraged and feeling hopeless. We internalize the stigma of mental illness into our already fragile existence. We accuse ourselves of being tainted, or defective, as a result of having a mental illness. And we supply ourselves with all the ‘evidence’ of why this is true.

After so many years of therapy and progress, it still amazes me how quickly I can fall into that pit, berating myself for being different in all the wrong ways, for being stupid and not good enough, for not being normal. Yes, we’ve all heard that normal isn’t such a great standard to shoot for, especially in an age when normal seems to equate to dumbed down conformity. I’m talking about the kind of normal that my husband has, who falls fast asleep within 30 seconds of hitting the pillow. As someone who still battles PTSD, I long to be that kind of normal! And even the longing is fine until it turns into an internal Sarah-bashing opportunity.

When I hear someone publicly perpetuate the stigma of mental illness, I ask: would you say that about someone with cancer? Would you blame that person for having cancer? Would you ridicule them? Would you make light of or ignore their problems? Would you say they are defective or tainted? Is a person with cancer not good enough because she has chronic insomnia?

There’s a thing of compassion where right-minded people would not think of treating a person with cancer this way. I owe myself nothing less than that same compassion. To do otherwise perpetuates my own micro version of stigma.

I refuse to participate in that any longer.



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About the author

Sarah Olson

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