Mental illness carries a stigma, no doubt about it. Recently, however, I began to wonder just how deep this stigma really is and how much of it is self-imposed. In other words, do we feel stigmatized mostly because people stigmatize us or because we fear that they would if they knew we were living with mental illness? (And when I say “we” I mean members of the bipolar community, including people who have loved ones with mental illness.)
Two events triggered my thoughts on this. One occurred two years ago when my wife and I were guests at a bipolar support group meeting in Slovenia. I was talking about how our society stigmatizes mental illness and how that makes us afraid to talk to people about it. A businessman pointed out that he had experienced the contrary. He related his story of talking about bipolar disorder at a business meeting. When the topic came up at the meeting, he immediately told the group that he has bipolar disorder. As soon as he opened up about it, the others began to discuss their experiences with mental illness.
The second incident occurred recently at a Bible study. I began talking about my family’s experience of living with bipolar disorder. (My wife is pretty open about having bipolar disorder, so it wasn’t like I was “outing” her. She believes, as I do, that we need to be able to talk about mental illness as openly as we discuss any illness.) As soon as I introduced the topic, others in the group opened up about their experience with mental illness – living with major depression.
Sometimes I think our own fear of stigma and the resulting silence are the main source of our feeling stigmatized. What do you think?
Photo by Mike Coghlan, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.