Stigma

26 Jul

When BlogHer asked me to speak at their annual conference on a panel called Mental Health in the Online Space, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. For one thing, I’ve never spoken at a conference before, and for another, I’m hardly a professional when it comes to talking about mental health. I mean, sure, I have lots of thoughts and opinions and feelings about it, and I feel pretty comfortable writing about my own experiences, but I’m by no means an expert. In fact, when I first received the invitation to speak I was sure that BlogHer had sent it to me by mistake.  But it turned out not to be a mistake, which is how I found myself sitting in a fancy conference room in a fancy hotel in fancy ol’ Chicago talking about whacky brain things.

The whole thing went pretty smoothly; a lot of it felt like we were preaching to the choir, to be honest. Our audience was mostly made up of people who had either had their own mental health struggles or else had experience with mental illness through their friends and family. Most of what we said was met with sympathetic nods or else comments from audience members who wanted to share similar issues that they’d experienced. About halfway through the session, though, just as I was starting to settle in and feel like I was getting the hang of things, one question caught me by surprise.

One of the panelists had mentioned that she hadn’t told her employer why, exactly, she was speaking at BlogHer, because she hadn’t wanted to divulge her mental health history. This is a pretty common dilemma faced by most people who live with mental illnesses, so I didn’t think anything of it until a hand shot up in the audience.

“I don’t have a mental illness, so I’m sorry if this is offensive,” said the woman, “but you’ve all talked a lot about stigma and, well, if you don’t tell your employer that you’re mentally ill, aren’t you contributing to that stigma?”

At that moment, we all looked at each other, and I could tell that all of us were thinking the same thing:

Ohhhhhh, she doesn’t know.

She doesn’t know that when you tell someone that you’re mentally ill, they look at you differently. When you tell your boss that you’ve struggled with your mental health, they start to treat you like something other, something lesser. Instead of your usual assignments or tasks, you might be asked to take on something a little more boring, more mundane. When you want to know why your role has changed, your boss might tell you that they were concerned that your former duties were too stressful for you. When you try to explain that, no, it’s not like that, you might get a look that’s a cross between father-knows-best and we’re-just-looking-out-for-you.

She doesn’t know that even if you do divulge your status as mentally ill, that doesn’t mean that you can talk about it, casually, as if it’s just another illness. For example, when someone at work asks you how you’re doing, you can never just reply, oh, you know, sad and a little anxious. If you have to take the day off because you woke up to a panic attack and you feel as if the grim, grey sky might crush you if you move from your bed, you can’t tell your employer the real reason why you won’t be at work; instead, you have to fake a convincing cough or else invent disgusting details about a fictional stomach flu.

She doesn’t know that when people talk about mental health in their workplaces, they run the risk of getting fired. Oh, not fired specifically because of mental illness, because that’s illegal, but fired for one of any number of trumped up reasons that their employer might come up with. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired for taking too much time off for doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, even if those things are necessary in order for them to function. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired while they’re on a leave of absence due to anxiety or depression just because they’ve posted pictures of themselves smiling on Facebook.

I wish I was making that last one up, but I’m not.

Most of all, what this audience member doesn’t know about is the stigma; stigma felt by everyone, your friends, your family, your doctor, and even you, yourself, the mental health advocate. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have to learn as much about your illness as you can because your doctor’s understanding of it is, at best, incomplete. She doesn’t know what it’s like to go to see a psychiatrist, one of the best in his field, and, after you’ve explained your history to him, none of which has been in any way violent, harmful, or neglectful towards others, have him ask if Children’s Aid has ever been involved with your family. She doesn’t understand that those of us who struggle with mental health issues grew up in the same world as everyone else, and we absorbed all the same toxic messages about mental illness that everyone else did. She doesn’t know about how we internalize that stigma, how we have to fight against our own shame, guilt, fear and doubt in order to love ourselves or even just take ourselves seriously.

She doesn’t know about how some of us hate ourselves for these things that are not our fault, and then feel like hypocrites for hating the very things that we’re trying to educate others about.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? Education, I mean. That’s the way to end the stigma and shame and fear. I know that, other mental health advocates know that, and even that woman in the audience knows that – which is why she was asking about how my co-panelist could hide her mental health issues from her employer rather than taking the time to educate them. The fact is that education about mental illness is incredibly important. But (and this is a big but) you can’t put all of the responsibility for educating others solely on the shoulders of mental health advocates. For one thing, it can be exhausting and emotionally draining to try to explain over and over again the particulars of brain chemistry and trauma and he ways that those things can shape your life. For another, being one hundred percent open about your mental health all of the time can, as mentioned above, have real-life consequences. And yeah, in a perfect world you could be like, fuck this job if they’re going to look down on me for an actual, bonafide illness, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you have to take what you can get just so that you can pay the bills.

Education about mental illness needs to start earlier for everyone, and it needs to come from the top down. It should be included in grade school health classes, in curriculums designed, in part, by mental health advocates. Education needs to come from doctors, who need to be properly educated themselves about all the ins and outs of the sad, lonely world so many of us find ourselves in. Education needs to be everywhere and be accessible to everyone in the community, because that’s honestly the only way we’re ever going to get to a place where someone can casually say at a dinner party, oh man, I had a manic episode yesterday and coming down sucked but I feel way better now, without everyone else giving them the side eye.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty down with living in that world.

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25 Responses to “Stigma”

  1. janetisserlis July 26, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    thank you

  2. ardenrr July 26, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    I’d definitely be down for living in that world. Another great post 🙂

  3. lizhawksworth July 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    There’s so much here that’s really important. The fact that mental illness is often seen as attention-seeking, too, is a big reason I don’t talk a lot about mine. I’m not “attention-seeking”. I don’t want special treatment. And I don’t want you looking down on me because I’m having a rough day dealing with the world. Mentally ill people aren’t broken. We see the world slightly differently than you do, and sometimes it’s hard. It doesn’t mean we need your pity, your “diagnosis” (Oh, you’re just tired, depression isn’t real), or your thoughts on how we should deal with it.

    Great post, Anne.

  4. Jimmy Cave July 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Just curious, did anybody clue her in? Not that I’m saying you should have (because me saying that, much like what the questioner asked, feels a little victim blamey.)

    • bellejarblog July 26, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      Yeah, totally! And I don’t think her question was inappropriate given the context. I think it’s something a lot of people wonder about, which is why I wanted to write this.

  5. Adrienne July 26, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    Great post Anne! I have been very lucky that I have an amazing boss (someone you know) that I am able to talk to about these things and take the time when I need it without him looking at me differently.

    • bellejarblog July 26, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      Does his name start with a J? 🙂

      • Adrienne July 26, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

        Yep 🙂

  6. ryanfhughes July 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    I’m glad it went well. Having lived with a person with debilitating depression and having had my own more manageable brushes with it, I think that impulse to hide the problem is partially the illness trying to protect itself (the ol’ “what’s the point of getting help”), but only partially. I think it’s also partially the person trying to protect themselves socially, and support-wise. Because being open about mental ilness can be the kind of social/emotional equivalent of throwing up on a crowded subway: everybody SCATTERS. It’s an instinct largely, and people will drift back, but man, everybody SCATTERS, and that’s a terrible thing to see, to watch your world recoil and shrink from you, even for a little bit.

  7. Jessica July 26, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    What this post needs is a “jump up and love” button. Thank you

  8. woahbamalam July 27, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    What an epic, fantastic, speak from the gut post. I was nodding all the way through, and I felt emotional because that is EXACTLY what it is like, to a t. I have kept my history and current ways away from my work, no one knew, and at times I suffered in silence. That is until this week when I spoke candidly to my new employer ( a friend also) and was surprised when he told me that he too had suffered with mental illness. It is written in our contracts that anyone with or with history of a mental illness is subject to immediate dismissal, so we are quiet about it. It’s just nice knowing I’m not alone.

    Bravo, amazingly written x

    • Matt July 30, 2013 at 2:28 am #

      I honestly can’t imagine that clause in your contracts surviving a lawsuit. That’s really messed up; it’s like being able to dismiss someone because they contract hepatitis, or sustain a debilitating injury.

      • woahbamalam July 30, 2013 at 3:08 am #

        Yeah, if I was in my home country, or any fully developed country I’d agree 100%, unfortunately I’m a country whose views are a little behind the times. So basically if I ever had any mental health issues, have, or ever do… Instant dismissal.

  9. prideinmadness July 27, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    I tell my employer I have mental health issues/emotional issues but I will NEVER tell them that it’s why I’m missing work (which I also rarely do because that makes me feel worse about myself).

  10. gardnerpam6 July 27, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Amen!!!!!
    awesome essay

  11. Abby July 27, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    From every fiber of my being, thank you for such a brave and powerful and spot-on post!

    As a professional and as an individual with mostly manageable mental health challenges I temper the extreme highs and lows as best as I can; however, I would not, for one instant, consider “outing” myself in my current professional or academic environment. It would be a career limiting move as much as I may be a contributor to the stigma. I’m OK with that right now – I need to do what I need to do to keep me safe (and employed). My partner and select group of family and friends know and know how to help me manage and stay safe when I am submerged in an “episode”.

    Beyond that, this world isn’t ready to collectively shift its perspective for so many of the reasons you thoughtfully articulated. Thank you for affirming what many of us already know and for bringing forward such an important issue so we, who vigorously nod our heads while reading your post, feel just that little bit less alone with this disease.

  12. Lady Phoenix July 28, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    Dealing with your mental health issues in itself can be a daunting task so to speak up and be open about it in an environment that can have a detrimental effect on your everyday life (work) can really be a terrifying thing. Especially if your employer and colleagues aren’t on the page of awareness.

    There is something great to be admired about people like you, who spend a lot of time putting your own anxieties and potential real life consequences aside for the greater good of bringing universal education and awareness to society on an issue that affects more people than society wishes to admit.

    Thank you.

  13. Grammardog July 29, 2013 at 12:00 am #

    I nodded all the way through this read… thanks for writing about it. I’ve basically stopped talking about depression because I know it alienates people and I don’t want to feel more lonely. So I’m just going to keep on crackin’ jokes! Wocka, wocka.

  14. brutalelegance July 30, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    You’re such a brave and eloquent writer. I wish I could get my thoughts together like you can. Everything you say I agree with, I feel like we should marry.

    • Messy Me December 31, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      I couldn’t agree more with your post! Indeed voicing out about mental illness of any sort could cause us to receive a cold, heartless response without empathy. I had friends who just fail to understand that depression, anxiety even suicidal thoughts and feelings are REAL. I just dropped by from WordPress’s Recommended blogs. Glad I did. 🙂 Feel free to visit my wordpress blog @ lifewithinamessymind.wordpress.com or my another blog at Blogger @ simplylivingtothefullest.blogspot.com

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Belle Jar on disclosing mental illness and workplace stigma. | She Curmudgeon - July 28, 2013

    […] She says it all, really.  (And if you’re not reading The Belle Jar on the regular, well.  You should be.) […]

  2. Looking For Attention: The Stigma in Mental Health Discussions | The Stretch For Something Beautiful - July 28, 2013

    […] Mental health stigma is real. Employers who look at you with pity, reducing your workload subtly if they find out you’re mentally ill. Being fired for not being perfectly cheerful and stable at all times in the workplace. Taking too much time off for appointments and hospital stays, trying to control the beast that lives in your brain. Losing friends who think you’re too hard to handle. The curious stares of people on the street, pointing at homeless people, pointing at someone crying. The many barbed jokes in movies, TV shows, books. “You’re insane.” “You’re crazy.” The way that not being perfectly mentally stable is almost a crime, and in some cases, can get you killed. […]

  3. Elizabeth Hawksworth: Looking for Attention: Passing Judgement on the Mentally Ill - Freshwadda Brooks | Coming Soon! - August 1, 2013

    […] Mental health stigma is real. Employers who look at you with pity, reducing your workload subtly if they find out you’re mentally ill. Being fired for not being perfectly cheerful and stable at all times in the workplace. Taking too much time off for appointments and hospital stays, trying to control the beast that lives in your brain. Losing friends who think you’re too hard to handle. The curious stares of people on the street, pointing at homeless people, pointing at someone crying. The many barbed jokes in movies, TV shows, books. “You’re insane.” “You’re crazy.” The way that not being perfectly mentally stable is almost a crime, and in some cases, can get you killed. […]

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