Monday, April 25, 2011

The Stigma of Mental Illness

The other day I saw the new People magazine with Catherine Zeta-Jones on the cover, with the caption "I'm not ashamed, battling bipolar disorder" I was completely taken aback, Catherine Zeta-Jones has bipolar disorder?! But she's so pretty and put together! Then I had to quickly snap at myself, you of all people should not be judging people's struggles based on their appearance or facade of "looking put together" and my tone quickly changed to, "Catherine Zeta-Jones has bipolar disorder." But this time, with relief; Catherine Zeta-Jones, beautiful and put together, also struggles with something. I felt compelled to buy the magazine to read the article. I don't have bipolar disorder, nor do I know what it's like to have bipolar disorder, but I do know what it's like to live with a very debilitating condition. If you read some posts back you know that I have panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Now I know one is a mental illness (bipolar) and one is a behavioral condition (anxiety), though some could argue anxiety is a mental illness as well, but both are similar in the sense that they can both be life-altering and they both come with negative stigmas attached to them.

I was talking to one of my co-workers about Zeta-Jones' condition, and he hesitatingly goes, "...yeah, I don't know..." You know those times when people know exactly what they want to say but don't know IF they should say it so they end up just saying, "yeah....I don't know..." for 5 minutes? Finally I asked, "what? you don't think she has it?" He responds, "yeah, not really... I mean, anyone can say 'oh yeah I killed a bunch of people because I have bipolar disorder,' I think it's a scam, I think it's for publicity." and I stood there thinking, 'why on earth would anyone do this for publicity when it has such a negative connotation attached to it?' I didn't say anything back to him, I just did one of those, "hmm, maybe" type responses and dropped it. It's kind of like talking about a sunset to a blind person, you just can't explain it unless they've experienced it.

Then I realized that it's people like him, and people that have those sort of reactions, that made me so terrified to write out that post about my disorders, and why I kept it a secret for so long. I was so scared that someone was going to tell me I was making it up, or exaggerating, or doing it for attention, or that what I had didn't really exist. To people who have never experienced it, or had someone close to them experience it, you really don't understand. And it's easy to dismiss it and say they're just using it as an excuse, or exaggerating. In one sense, it's disheartening that they have such an unsympathetic view towards others' conditions, but on another, thank God they've never had to live through it. Good for them that they've never had to struggle with just living their day-to-day life and never had to worry when their next "episode" was going to be.

But while reading the article, Catherine was so positive and blunt about everything. The way she openly admitted to needing help, and then seeking it because she no longer wanted to "silently suffer" is brave and inspiring. But the best part of the whole article was when she says,
"'This is a disorder that affects millions of people and I am one of them,' she tells People in a statement. 'If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help then it is worth it. There is no need to suffer silently and there is no shame in seeking help.' ...'She felt like, 'Why wouldn't I say it? It's the truth,' says a close friend... 'There is some weird taboo about this. But she's like, 'If I had diabetes, I would say I had diabetes and I would get treatment for it.'"

I love that. I love that she proudly says there is no shame in seeking help and why wouldn't she say it? If it were anything else, it would be accepted, but since it's a mental illness, it should be kept a secret. Why? There is no reason to be ashamed. We have come so far with medicine and science and understanding illnesses and disorders, why is it so hard to accept that people HAVE these disorders? We aren't living in the ages where people with mental and behavioral disorders get treated with lobotomies and electro-shock therapy and get sent off to mental institutions never to be seen again because there condition wasn't understood. There is medicine and therapy and successful treatment where people who suffer from this can live a normal life just like everyone else.

I just felt compelled to write this post and share my feelings on the subject. I think my co-worker just kind of put things in perspective of how "outsiders" see mental and behavioral disorders. And how people who are dealing with those things shouldn't let people invalidate the realness and magnitude of their condition. Not everyone in this world is going to be accepting and supportive of things, but just know that there ARE accepting and supportive people out there and to not be discouraged to seek help and to get treatment. Everyone's battle is different. That's my two cents. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Source: People


  1. Thank you for sharing this and bringing attention to the issue of mental illness. During my undergrad as a psychology major, I started a group called Active Minds that is all about de-stigmatizing mental illness, especially among college students who are a vulnerable group. I'm so glad there are other people out there who have the same idea.

    I liked the part where Catharine Zeta-Jones says that if she were diabetic, she would go get treated and it would be no big deal. However, people with mental illness should just "get over it" or "it's all just in their head." These dismissive comments ignore the fact that many mental illnesses are biologically-based (e.g. decreases in neurotransmitters) and need some type of intervention for people to get better. Just like a diabetic who gets insulin treatments, those with mental illnesses need to get treatment, too. Sometimes this is in the form of medication, sometimes it's in the form of counseling (which is biology-based because it helps to change neural pathways).

    Sorry if this is long-winded. I just don't like it when people talk about mental illness as if it's no big deal because it is a big deal to the person suffering from it. Nobody tells a guy with a tumor to "just get over it."

  2. First of all, thank you for sharing the article and your own experience. I agree that it's a shame people can be so closed minded. I have no personal experience with mental disorders, but that does not mean I can't be empathetic to another's condition. I really am glad you were brave enough to post this and wish you the best!

  3. I've been touched by mental illness way more in the passed few months of my life than my entire life in general, because of the family with which I live. The woman I live with has three kids. I live with her and one of them. If you look up her other son on YouTube, you'll find plenty of his inspirational speeches and his scene from the documentary The Bridge. Despite the fact that he seems to have gotten a lot better (which of course he has), I don't think people realize he still struggles with bipolar disorder every single day of his life. The other son, the one I live with, seemed to be doing okay, until I came home last week to find out he'd been taken to the psych ward. You really don't know about anyone unless you're in their shoes, which will never happen for anyone. It's fortunate that my roommate has his mother, his family, and an entire pool of support, as do others. But there is such a high percentage of homeless people who are simply suffering from mental illness, who are homeless because they don't have that support. The hospital, or the police takes them in, but they send them right out on the streets the very next day. They're doing the same shit with my roommate, but at least he has a roof and a wealth of support waiting for him. Makes me sad that people just look at homeless people and assume they are on drugs. Yes, I'm sure plenty of them are, but a lot of them are just suffering from untreated mental illness. Our entire system is fucked.

  4. THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS! I am a therapist and I work with clients who strugle with mental illness every day. I specialize in working with clients with anxiety, and I see their stigma. Thanks for not only calling our attention to this, but for sharing your story.

  5. Hi,
    i've been following your Blog for quite a while now, this is the first time I'm writing a comment - to thank you.
    In the beginning of this year I had a panic attack - the first of many smaller ones. I've been diagnosed with panic and anxiety disorder, and some other desease I simply cannot translate into sense-making english. ( I'm german. And I have neither spoken nor written in english since not going to school anymore - I apologize for any mistakes. ;))

    Although I have never hesitated to seek for help - I have immediately contacted a therapist and tried to to all I could- I find it really, really hard to talk to other people about my condition. My boyfriend is basically the only person who knows about everything, and my problem is the exact same one you are talking about in this post. I can name at least 10 of my friends who would not understand what I have to deal with every day, who would not take me serious or who would stop trusting me.
    So, thank you for being so honest and talking about what you are facing - I know that you don't know me at all, but reading your blog makes me feel that I know some part of you. And right know, I'm sitting here crying, because I'm so relieved that I "found" someone who might feel the same way I feel sometimes.

  6. I really feel that its important for people like Cathrine Zeta Jones to speak out, and to share thier struggles, because although it is a very personal matter, bringing it out in the open is the only way to work towards tearing down the misconceptions that society has created. I thought it was interesting that you were immediatly shocked to learn that someone so pretty or put together was struggling with this, because I think mental illness affects more people than we know, but because they have it under control we are nto aware, or because they look nice and not a mess its invalidated. I also think that your coworker made an interesting point- some people do fake it. Its sad, but its true. I think often when celebs loose control of their lives, its easier to say "I wasn't in drug rehab, I was dealing with depression" because to some extent, they think that will take some of the negative attention away, or killers who fake insanity to get a plea deal. I think that these are the expetion, not the rule. I believe that most people brave enought to open up about such things are sincere. And Zeta Jones had no reason to use this as a cop out, she had no reason to go public with something like this unless she truelly wanted to destigmatize mental illness, which I think is the case. And I think that poeple are having conversations about it, chatting and sharing opinions, has already been a huge success for her and for groups working to make it more understood. But thank you for posting this, and I hope you are doing well.
    A couple quotes I love and thought you might enjoy:
    "I arise each morning torn between a desire to enjoy the world, and a desire to improve the world. This makes it hard to plan the day" EB White
    "It'll be ok in the end, and if its not ok, its not the end"
    -K Krage

  7. Lotte,

    I am so sorry to hear what you are going through, but I know what it's like, I've been there and to some degree, am still there. Don't ever feel like you are alone or the only one that's going through this because I promise you, you're not. Even though I've shared my experience and been completely honest on a large scale (the internet) I still am hesitant to talk about it with certain people in my "real life" because I don't know what their reaction will be. Take your time and talk with people you trust and it will get easier. If you ever need to talk--about anything--or are having a hard time, please don't hesitate to email me: we're in this together. :)

  8. My mom has bipolar disorder and the stigma is defiantly not as bad as it used to be.
    When I was in 8th grade, my mom was held on a 5150 and was then transferred to a mental hospital in Calabasas for two weeks. We told everyone that she was visiting her mom.
    Back then, it was shameful. It was embarrassing. You didn't want to tell anyone the truth because they might compare you to her.
    Now that I'm in my 30s and KNOW I'm not like her, I am much more open about her illness and how it affected me as a child and now as an adult with a child.
    I have to protect my child from my mom's illness just like my dad had to protect my brother and I. It sucks but it's life. And you do what you have to do to deal with it.
    I'm glad CZJ decided to speak out. People who have never had the exposure to mental disorders like I have will never have any idea what it's like.
    As for people who are now suffering, there are so many options out there (as far as therapy and medications) and so many resources, so you don't have to suffer like my mom and my family did (does).
    It baffles me that any illness from the neck down is ok, but an illness in your head makes you crazy.
    And for the record, I was diagnosed with GAD about 12 years ago and I'm ok with the fact that I will be on medication for the rest of my life.


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