I have the solution to changing the negative way society sees people with mental illness:
Stop yelling at people. Stop trying to make people feel badly for not understanding our circumstances. Stop being disrespectful, condescending, and angry toward people who don’t know what it’s like to live with mental illness. It isn’t helping our cause and is, in fact, hurting it.
The general population believes that people with mental illness are unstable, erratic, and potentially violent. So when they encounter a person with mental illness who treats them poorly, it reinforces that belief. They don’t see the people we are; they see the angry people we present. And, frankly, no one looks their best when angry.
I’m not saying not to be angry. In fact, if you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention. What I am saying is that anger is better used as motivation. As such, it needs to be crafted into productivity. Anger fuels action and the appropriate action inspires change. What we want– what we need– is for more people to join our cause. That will happen a lot faster if we remember that society isn’t the enemy. Most people are just uninitiated. It isn’t that they don’t like us; it’s that they don’t know us.
Society Sees People with Mental Illness at Their Worst
Because of the media, pop culture, and the way bad news spreads faster than good news, society sees people living with mental illness at their worst. When I walk down the street on a normal day, no one sees a man with bipolar disorder minding his own business. However, if I were in crisis and running down the street crying because I was being chased by something only I could see, society would notice that. In turn, that would become the basis of their opinion of those with mental illness.
What we want is for people to openly discuss mental illness. We want people to share their thoughts, concerns, and opinions. Because they have such little understanding and such little knowledge, I can almost guarantee they will say something offensive.
Believe it or not, saying even the wrong thing out loud is progress. Don’t give them a reason to stop talking. Don’t give them a reason to disengage. We want them to talk openly and we want them to talk to us. We want people to feel comfortable asking us anything. We want the opportunity to change their minds and, if we respond with anger, they won’t listen. They will go on believing, maybe even more so, the misinformation they have been fed.
One by one, we need to show society that we are just people. We are people with individual stories, with personalities, with hopes and dreams. We laugh, we cry, and sometimes we make mistakes. We are people living with a chronic illness that does not define us and many of us lead amazing lives in spite of our health challenges.
We often assume that people are saying hurtful things out of malice, but more often than not, they are saying offensive things out of ignorance. They aren’t trying to be mean. They simply don’t know what they are saying is offensive. We have an opportunity to change their minds, to educate them, and to make them our allies. Explaining our anger rather than expressing it opens the door to educating them. And that opens the door to making them our allies.
We need to remember above all else that we, with all of our experiences, are the best counter to all the negative stereotypes that exist in society.
We can’t expect society to change its opinion because of what we say. Only when society understands the truth of who we are and what we advocate for will opinions change.