Inch by inch and step by step we are making progress in the battle against the stigma related to mental-health illness. The progress has been slow for sure, and comes primarily in the form of articles being written about the existence of this stigma. The stigma is definitely still a factor in the mental-health conversation, but at least people are talking about that stigma. Does that sound like progress? Yes, it does, certainly to me, because we are talking about and acknowledging the existence of mental-health issues. We are not ignoring the topic hoping it will go away.
Each of these articles to which I referred above talks about people, famous and not-so-famous, admitting that they have mental-health challenges. Carson Daly, host of The Voice and a contributor on the Today Show, admits battling a panic and anxiety disorder since childhood. Charlamagne Tha God, a radio host and best-selling author of Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me, admits that even though he talks and writes about having mental-health issues, he is still not totally comfortable with this persona. Allison Schmitt, a gold medal Olympic swimmer, Kevin Love, a professional basketball player, Jason Kander, a politician, and so many more well-known people have come forward and raised their hands and said, “Yes, I have a mental-health challenge.” But even with so many people confessing to having mental-health issues, we unfortunately are still not free of the stigma.
Our society has a long way to go to get up to speed on accepting mental-health illness and treating it like any other illness. Until that happens, people will remain wary and reticent in seeking help for their mental-health issue. Depression will go untreated. Anxiety will go untreated. Panic disorders will go untreated. Bi-polar disorders will remain in the closet. And this result is so unfortunate, because there are so many ways to get help and lead a healthy, productive, and normal life.
For resources for help please refer to the list below.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute on Mental Health
Heads Together Mental Health
Articles about opioids and drug abuse, publicity about hazing on college campuses, ads about sanitary napkins and other menstrual products, articles about birth control, advertisements about solutions for erectile disfunction, and even a few conversations about mental health issues, have creeped into our lives. Once forbidden public topics, these personal aspects of our lives appear to be part of a growing set of acceptable mores. Some of the stigma attached to these topics is sloughing away. Slowly for sure, but nonetheless little by little, it is becoming acceptable for a human being to have an imperfection.
So we appear to be making some progress in the field of taboos. What does that mean for those of us who are challenged by some of these taboos? What does that mean for those of us challenged by the taboo of mental health illness? Truthfully, I am not sure of the answer. I am only sure that every little step of progress towards making mental health illness less stigmatized is a good step.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Princess Kate, and the Prince of Wales, Prince Harry, sponsor an organization called Heads Together*. It is an organization that speaks to the issues of mental health stigma in general, and the effect of that stigma on PTSD sufferers in particular. By promoting open conversations about mental health issues, Heads Together promotes understanding of, and seeking treatment for, mental health challenges for military people. Along with their own programming, Heads Together partners with a number of UK charities already doing great work in fighting the stigma that often prevents people from getting the help they need.
Attached here is one of the many conversations that has taken place under the auspices of Heads Together.
* (It is very much like the organization that Dr. Jill Biden and Michelle Obama started here in the USA, called Joining Forces.)
I just finished reading an article, in the New York Times, of an interview with Glenn Close and Patrick Kennedy entitled, Glenn Close and Patrick Kennedy on the Weight of Mental Illness They were being interviewed by Philip Galanes about their respective interest in the fight for better understanding of the mental health issue and the stigma attached to that illness. Glenn Close started an organization called BringChange2Mind(BC2M), because she was deeply effected by the fact that her sister and nephew have had a long battle with bipolar disorder. Patrick Kennedy started an organization called the Kennedy Forum, and Mr. Kennedy has also written a memoir entitled A Common Struggle. Both endeavors are as a result of his own struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. Both BC2M and the Kennedy Forum are speaking to the history of the stigma of mental health illness and how that stigma needs to be eradicated. You can access the article through the hyperlink above, and attached below is the article itself, which is well worth reading. Please take what will be a well invested ten minutes to read it.
You can be the first in your family. That’s what the poster would say. BE THE FIRST IN YOUR FAMILY. The poster would not be suggesting that you be the first person in your family to graduate from high school, attend college, or own the latest invention. The poster’s message would be encouraging you to be the first person in your family to have the courage to acknowledge and seek help for a mental health problem. Obviously you may never know if you are the first in your family to have to face this issue. The only thing you can assume is that no one before you had your courage to acknowledge a mental health problem. Mental illness was a topic that lived deep inside the closet with other family scandals. It lived behind the door, under the photos, and under the old sheets. But it doesn’t need to be buried going forward. YOU can be the first in your family to unveil your truth, and to seek help. YOU can be the first in your family to step beyond any boundaries of shame and begin to educate those close to you. Let them know that you have a mental illness, that it is a medical condition, and that you have stepped up to the challenges that accompany this illness. Let them know that you have decided to no longer live in denial and shame. Let them know that you want to live as good a life as you can, and in order to do that you are taking charge and seeking help. Help is good. Help is helpful. Educate your family. Educate your friends. Educate the community around you. Show them that not withstanding your mental illness, you are successful, and creative, and happy.
I appreciate Carrie Fisher’s intense honesty about her struggles with mental health, in particular with bi-polar disorder. I am not so sure that one voice makes a huge difference, but every voice counts, and especially her’s, which was funny, clear, loud, and well-known due to her fame.
Ms. Fisher had a rough time of it after her diagnosis in her mid-twenties, choosing for a period of time to drown her diagnosis in alcohol and drugs. By her thirtieth birthday, Fisher had come to terms with the fact that her bi-polar disorder was real. From the moment of her acceptance, Fisher embraced her illness and recognized that the disease was medical in nature. She never succumbed to feelings of shame about her chronic mental illness. In her mind, she knew it was due to a chemical imbalance, and this chemical imbalance was no different from any other medical condition. It is reputed that her brutally honest reaction to, and acceptance of, her bi-polar disorder brought some normalcy to perceptions about mental health illness, proving that even an intelligent, cool, and successful person can have a mental illness and still lead a normal, productive, and stimulating life. Many of us who deal with a chronic mental illness know this to be fact. We know that we can lead successful, productive, and happy lives. We are not the ones who need convincing. It is the larger (but shrinking) community that has never experienced mental illness that needs to understand the normalcy of our particular abnormality. When the outside community begins to accept the normalcy of this disease, it will make it easier for all of us to feel unashamed.
Today, perhaps in part because of Carrie Fisher’s honesty, more people are talking openly about their own struggles. More programs have been established to help people face and manage their own mental illness, and to educate their families and the population at large. With greater openness on the subject of mental health, more people are reaching out to get the help they need. And all of this is good.
Stomp your feet. Bang the drums. Shout from the roof tops. I do believe the conversation about mental health is finally changing. Slowly, people are beginning to talk and write about the mental health world and all of its issues. There are blogs in which people write about their own experiences with a mental health issue. There are blogs that present academic treatises about mental health issues. There are television shows that contain segments about the topic. There are ads on television and in print that speak to the issue of medication that could help someone with a mental health malady. Those ads are right up there with the ads about aspirins, tampax and adult diapers. It is exciting to see the news coverage about mental health. It is exhilarating to read the many articles that are now being written about mental health issues. It is downright fantabluous that people are beginning to talk about their own experiences with mental health issues. Our population is waking up to the fact that mental health issues are a part of the string of illnesses that effect many people. Mental illness is diagnosable and treatable, and it is no different in its essence than diabetes, and therefore should not carry any stigma with its diagnosis. A once verboten subject of conversation, the mental health issue has found its way into our more conventional airwaves and cyberwaves. In short, more people are talking about and thinking about the world of mental health issues.
The Today Show, a very mainstream morning program, covers mental health topics regularly. Whether one watches the program live or heads to the Today Show website, one will find topics about PTSD therapy dogs, men and depression, and the onset of autumn blahs, just to name a few subjects. The topics are treated respectfully, and people are always encouraged to seek professional help if they exhibit any symptoms discussed or have questions. Readers and watchers are also told that mental illness is diagnosable, treatable, and medical in nature. It is not a figment of the mind.
Online, conversations are being started and projects are being initiated with regard to mental health issues. Plug into your browser the words “mental illness stigma” and your search will lead you to a number of sites providing hours of reading. Some of the writing is very academic, but a lot of it is personal. People are openly sharing their challenges with this illness. The resulting knowledge creates better understanding. And the conversation continues to expand every day. Join the conversation. Share your stories. Talk.