If you’re familiar at all with mental illness, you’re probably also familiar with the stigma that can go along with it: prejudice, discrimination, isolation, etc. Patients experience stigma. Our family members experience stigma because of our mental illness. We experience it from our family members. There are so many negative assumptions floating around about mental illness that it’s no wonder it has a negative effect on everyone involved. It becomes a real problem when we internalize stigma.
It all starts with awareness. In a recent article out of the Illinois Institute of Technology and and University Hospital Zurich, researchers discuss four stages of self-stigma that lead to a negative impact on a patient’s life:
This is awareness that a stigma exists in general. Some examples of stereotypes against bipolar patients are that we’re incompetent, that we are dangerous to ourselves and others. We cannot take care of ourselves. We don’t want treatment and we think we don’t need it.
You may have seen it first-hand, in the media or have experienced it yourself. Not everyone will be seriously impacted by awareness. It may just stay at that level, but for about 20% of patients, just knowing that stereotypes exist can start to have a negative impact on mental health. (I realize I’ve just contributed to that. I’ll get to how to fix it as we move on.)
When you start to agree with stereotypes is when the impact starts. Negative self-talk comes in and you begin to convince yourself that the stereotypes are right. Maybe people with bipolar disorder can’t take care of themselves. Maybe they are dangerous and should therefore be avoided.
Here, your focus starts to narrow. You question what you know about yourself. If these stereotypes about people with bipolar disorder are correct and youhave bipolar disorder, suddenly you may be unstable. You may be unable to care for yourself. A seed of doubt is planted and the more you ruminate on faults that may or may not exist, the higher the chance the seed will sprout.
4. Lower self-esteem
Once you’ve hit step three, you’re almost automatically going to shift into step four. You start to alienate yourself. Self-loathing can step in. You convince yourself that you’re worthless and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can start thinking that the fact that you even have bipolar disorder is your own fault and you deserve it.
This stage can look incredibly similar to depression and can be impacted by depression. Interestingly enough, though, these thoughts or beliefs can stick around even when you’re asymptomatic.
Ready for good news? Me too. If you are one of the people affected by self-stigma, it is treatable. Like most things with mental illness, therapy is always an option. It can help you get out of your head, so to speak, and realized that you’re not a stereotype. You may have bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t mean that you are all of the negative things associated with it. You can also involve yourself in self-help and mutual support programs. Getting out of isolation can help you see what is actually going on and alleviate some of the stressors and boost self-esteem.
I have more good news. The stereotypes appear to be changing. Awareness is more prevalent. When people are more aware of something, they tend to be less afraid of it and therefore are less likely demonize it. Celebrities are coming out more often saying they also suffer from mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. Not only does this help raise awareness in general, but can also dissuade negative stereotypes when it’s someone you admire.
Newer generalizations about bipolar disorder include: It’s biological. We don’t do anything to contract it and we can’t just will it away. It’s treatable and treatment can have great results. We’re also more likely to be considered intelligent and creative.
Even if they’re not as prominent, the negative stereotypes still exist, but I’ll take intelligent and creative over incompetent and dangerous any day.
You can find me on Twitter @LaRaeRLaBouff