With today’s final birthday guest post, we’re changing tack a little. When I asked Rose to write something about the stigma associated with mental illness, I thought it would be an interesting insight into a subject that is close to both our hearts – but with the recent suicide of the comedian Robin Williams and the public and media response to this tragic event, the topic has taken on a whole new significance. This is an honest and thoughtful post, and I freely admit that I strongly identify with a lot of what is said here. I am sure that this post will also strike a chord with others.
Rose blogs at the excellent roseversusblackdog about her experiences of and ongoing recovery from mental health issues. Even if you have no personal experience of mental illness (and especially if you do), her blog is definitely a recommended read.
August 11th 2014 – I woke up at 3am suffering from an anxiety attack and decided to have a quick browse on Twitter to distract myself. One tweet caught my eye – I saw the words “Robin Williams dead at 63 – Suspected Suicide”.
Tweet after tweet. Overwhelming sadness.
“Get help!” “Tell someone” “You can get better”.
Understandable messages from concerned well-wishers some who were probably worried about their own friends and family.
I also thought a lot about the exhortations to “speak up” and “tell someone”.
I would like to explain why this is such courageous act and why given the possible consequences, we should have understanding and compassion for people who wish to stay silent.
Mental Illness as Moral Weakness
In the wake of Mr Williams’ passing there were also tweets stating the opinion that “Suicide is a selfish act”. Selfish one of many derogatory words used to describe the mentally ill. However the harsh judgement doesn’t just stop there :
Mental illness is seen by some people not as an illness, or an understandable psychic response to ill-treatment, but as a consciously chosen set of behaviours designed to reflect a lack of moral fortitude. We could choose to get better and not be such an “imposition” or “nuisance” to our community but we don’t.
Some sufferers are part of religious communities and although some have found their community and personal faith to be a source of strength, others have found that it can greatly increase the stigma and sense of moral inadequacy.
Mental Illness as a source of Negative Contamination
Recently I shared on Twitter about how speaking about my mental illness has caused me to lose friends. A lot of people could relate to this and many offered me words of comfort:
“They were not your true friends” “You were better off without them” – to paraphrase but a few responses.
What makes a true friend though? If you can laugh with someone, share interests, hobbies, dreams, insights, isn’t that what true friendship is about?
I had such a friend (I shall call her Cara – not her real name). Cara was a source of sunshine in my life. She was beautiful, charismatic and funny – I loved her.
However once I confided in her about my mental illness it all changed. Cara became distant and stopped having lunch with me. Eventually she just ignored me altogether.
This is not just my experience. Others report friends and family distancing themselves as though they might become “tainted” by association.
Mental Illness as Danger
Every time there is a mass-shooting reported, the speculation always turns to the assailant’s mental health. The mental ill are stigmatised through the myths which suggests that they are automatically bad and dangerous to know. The fact is that the mentally ill are more likely to be the victim of violence by the hands of others or by themselves (as in self-harming behaviours).
A budding romance I had a little while ago came to an abrupt end with the revelation of my mental illness. It was thought that I was a danger to his young children.
Online dating wasn’t much better.
Profile after profile had variations on “no mentals”. Either it was put in such stark offensive terms or there were the “no offence but…” explanations .
We are “dangerous” and apparently un-dateable.
Mental Illness is Uneconomical
There is the highly publicised case of Megan Cox who had her offer of employment withdrawn from Emirates airline due to the disclosure of a previous spell of depression.
Employers and recruitment agencies rarely tell you up front whether having certain medical problems might be looked into and negatively evaluated.
In theory whilst the Equalities Act should protect people from being discriminated against due to a long-term recurrent condition, employers often get round that by citing some other reason for the rejection.
The mentally ill who cannot work suffer even more stigma and resultant hardship.
The popular right-wing press encourage labels such as “work-shy” and “benefit scroungers”. There seems to be the perception that mentally ill people are fabricating their conditions to hide laziness.
See now why some of us might prefer to grin and bear it to the bitter end?
I agree that we should be able to speak up, and tell people we are ill. We should be able to access timely and effective treatment for our conditions. Sadly until we have a more compassionate society and more accessible treatment options for mental illness then speaking up about mental illness will always be an option fraught with jeopardy.