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Shadow action: fighting against the unspoken stigma of mental illness

By Cameron Sidhe (cenos2@uic.edu), Managing Editor

There is a silent specter haunting our streets, a ghost stripping strangers’ faces of color. It is loudest on street corners, in homeless shelters, in the psych ward, and in ERs – but in everyday relations, where its stronghold is fiercest, the quiet can be deafening.

I should know. I have been struggling with mental illness since I was thirteen years old, and it has mostly been a fight battled in the dark, behind the locked doors of mental health wards and within the confines of my bedroom. This fight has only been truly illuminated on the Internet, where the judgment of strangers is nowhere near as stinging as the bafflement, embarrassment, and shame of friends and family.

Ever since I began to experience horrifying mood swings and hallucinations, turning my life into a demented carnival ride with no way to get off, I have endured the puzzlement of the uninformed, “but you don’t look crazy!”; the self-satisfying smirks of the willfully obtuse, “just think positive thoughts!”; and the downright hatred of the ignorantly hostile, “people like you should be locked up!”. But nothing has hurt so much as feeling completely and utterly alone in my experience. It was only when I began to openly talk about what I was dealing with, offering advice and information to others, that I realized that many of my friends, family, and peers had been managing and triumphing against the very same issues – simply in the complete silence demanded by a society which insists that mental illness is selfish, easily cured, or even imaginary.

The stigma that surrounds mental health issues is hard to define, but it permeates every facet of a mentally ill person’s existence, from socialization to education to employment to even housing and food availability. There are obvious legal factors, such as unequal coverage for mental health care until Obama’s health care reform, but there are also insidious, almost invisible issues as well, like slurs such as “crazy” and “psycho” being used as pejoratives against anything that a speaker thinks is bad or wrong, furthering the belief that people with psychosis or other “crazy” individuals are just as awful as the symptoms they face. There are the pervasive popular culture stereotypes of “mentally unhinged” or “deranged” individuals committing unspeakable crimes, and the fact that every mass murderer in recent memory has immediately been deemed mentally ill by armchair psychologists, a phenomenon that strengthens the baseless popular belief that the mentally ill are more likely to be violent than the rest of the population.

And then there is the self-perpetuation of these destructive and hurtful attitudes, when one’s inner monologue regurgitates the very stigma that makes it so hard to be mentally ill in the first place: “Do I really need this medication? Everyone says it’s all inside my head, that I could just feel better if I wanted it badly enough. Maybe I’m just being a spoiled brat, just trying to make things harder for myself to get attention. Maybe everyone is right when they tell me to just suck it up and deal with it. I’m feeling a little better today; it was probably just a bad spell. Maybe I was just being melodramatic.” Exit medication – enter relapse.

It’s estimated that about half of all Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Half of us will struggle with these very same demons, will feel all alone in a world that is actually full of resources and support –  if only people would discuss mental health and make those resources widely known and readily available. Half of us will be thrust into a sea of demons that threaten to consume us with their power, with their cloying constancy, while others stand on the shore and offer useless platitudes like “cheer up” and “think positive.” And some of us will drown in that very same sea, overwhelmed by the pain of mental illness in a world that refuses to acknowledge both its wide reach and its incredible ability to destroy lives.

The time to discuss mental illness is now, and it’s not just about talking: it’s about educating, publicizing and improving resources, and making our stories heard. While mental illness isn’t normal, and it’s certainly not an enjoyable facet of life, it is a common one, and making it clear that no one is fighting this alone can save numerous lives and help individuals with mental health issues get the help they need and deserve. Even if you are not fighting mental illness, being open about your stress, your anxiety, your sadness, your feelings, can help to make it clear that everyone struggles, and that it’s not wrong to face challenges and difficulties, mentally or otherwise, in your life. The human community is a global one: there is nothing anyone is fighting that no one has not gone through before. We are all here for one another: all of us have gone through something, and no one has to suffer alone. It’s time to stop shaming, stop silencing, stop stigmatizing, and start speaking out.

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4 Comments

  1. Simply brilliant. I’m reblogging this, if you don’t mind.

  2. […] Shadow action: fighting against the unspoken stigma of mental illness (thechicagoblock.wordpress.com) […]

  3. rkelly4609 says:

    Thank you for this! I have a friend who’s son is currently struggling with schizophrenia and we search every day for a glimmer of some hope! We found some with you! Thank you!

  4. […] Shadow action: fighting against the unspoken stigma of mental illness (thechicagoblock.wordpress.com) […]

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