Living in the House of Stigma
No matter what you’ve heard about mental illness, it will most likely be followed with, “If you feel you are in danger, if you are considering self-harm, if you feel alone, if you are ‘fill in the blank,’ please TELL SOMEONE!” I say it, post it, tweet it, you name it, ALL THE TIME. I mean, that’s what we’re supposed to do as advocates for mental health. It’s considered the best of advice, at least according to every mental health expert, seminar, training session or speaker I’ve ever heard. But what if you do tell someone and instead of the “Gee, we love you and support you no matter what,” you end up with the proverbial door being slammed in your face?
While recently attending a suicide prevention seminar I realized something. No one ever talks about the rejection side of mental illness. Sure, bloggers, tweeters, and survivors alike can all share horror stories of isolation, lack of support and the loss of so-called friends and family. But why aren’t the pros talking about this? Do they think it would cause individuals to avoid seeking help? Are they blind to the idea of having your supposed support system give you the cold shoulder?
Family, believe it or not, tend to be some of the biggest culprits of the dreaded word, stigma because consider it as humiliation. A “Scarlett Letter,” if you will. It’s as if the whole entire neighborhood is going to paint a huge MI on their chest and hunt them in the night with torches. Yet, I hear stories every day of how parents have told their children NOT to ever mention their mental illness again or to anyone else because it can “ruin the family’s reputation.” Even more shocking, is when the family accuses the person seeking help of utter laziness or being attention-seekers.
Sadly, the reality of such reactions as “don’t ever tell anyone,” “you need to stop being so dramatic” or “just get over it” can actually do more harm than the disorder itself. Imagine being the person finding the courage to share your illness and seeking support only to have the situation turn into this?
So why is it that the people who love us the most have the hardest time with acceptance? My answer is simple: fear and struggle. Most families aren’t equipped with the knowledge needed; they don’t know the right pathway to help or the fear of being held responsible is overwhelming. Even worse, in some instances, they fear their own safety. Despite the many forms of research that indicate mental illness does not equate violence, the idea that it does is still out there. As for the struggle…no one wants to see their loved ones suffer, let alone emotionally. We all want our children and family members to be the happiest, best versions of themselves.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Sharing your struggle is critical to your own self-healing and by all means, if you’re in danger, please do tell. At the same time, beware that there is always a possibility of being met with rejection, hurt, or a reaction that can trigger a mental health crisis. If this DOES happen to you, please tell someone else, call your physician or visit your local ER. There are tons of online resources and free support groups all around the country as well. Being met with a less than positive response by no means is indicative of the greater community, other family members and friends, and mental health professionals.