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Stigma of the Mentally Ill – Part 1

For the past few weeks I have been doing a great deal of research on the topic of mental illness, not so much through books and learned sources but through the general population over the internet and through casual discussions with acquaintances and friends. What I was interested in was general perceptions, thoughts and opinions of mental illness and those that suffer from it before we strap on our political correctness filters – you know those filters that don’t normally allow us to say what we think for fear of offending someone or being thought poorly of?

The reason that I was curious was a discussion I had recently with an acquaintance – a military wife whose husband recently returned from duty – we were discussing the death of my husband, OK, his suicide that resulted from his mental illness which was exasperated by his own military service. That conversation was all about open dialogue and breaking the stigma and fear of discussion in order for family and the sufferer themselves to get the support of people in their community – when my husband died many were shocked because they didn’t realize that anything was ‘wrong’ with him – we had successfully hidden his illness and struggles from the world for years without ever even realizing it. So I embarked on this journey to discover whether we were right or wrong in doing so – if suffering in solitude was really what was best for us at the time.

What I discovered was actually quite disconcerting and it leaves me wondering what if any solution there could ever be for those that suffer with mental illness to any degree in our society. It seems that when it comes to public perceptions of the mentally ill – the only way to get a fair shake is to discuss it with a professional who works in that area, or with someone directly affected by it  – for the general populations there seems to be a severe catch 22 when ‘coming out’ of the mental illness closet. Of everyone who answered my surveys, there seems to be only 3 responses.

For families and individuals who either suffer from or work with the mentally ill – there is a general consensus of patience, tolerance and understanding. If you were to divulge your or a family member’s struggle with a mental illness you would be met with compassion and an informed understanding of the issues. Depending on the diagnoses, you may find others to be quite well informed as to symptoms and treatments – a great potential resource!  This attitude speaks volumes in support of more support groups and community organizations for families and individuals themselves t meet with others in the same boat so to speak – moderation of these groups by professionals in the field would provide an educated basis for support. And I for one will be working towards the formation and marketting of these types of groups, there can be only good that comes from them.

the second group of responders falls into the what I call the Fearsomes. These are the people with very little understanding of mental illness and associate the term itself with what they have seen in movies and in the media – extreme cases of illness that result in violence and unspeakable crimes against humanity. One only has to look in the local media to find such reports – the Greyhound incident on Highway #1 or the machete attack in Winnipeg for examples. The Fearsomes aren’t interested in learning about or associating with anyone or anything to do with the mentally ill because they are afraid. they are afraid of the unknown and someone disclosing an illness to a Fearsome would find in most cases a severance of the relationship they once had. Isolation and perhaps even ostracization from those they perceived trustworthy enough to reach out to. Of course this type of treatment would not bode well for anyone dealing with mental illness in any capacity and would surely result in even more secretiveness.

The third and I feel the most dangerous of the groups were the people I have termed the Minimizers. These are the people who shrug off mental illness as a personality quirk or a temporary state of being or weakness. The Minimizers say things like ‘Oh we have all felt that way at one time’ or ‘I knew a guy with that problem and he just took a pill and was fine’. the Minimizers will look at the symptoms or emotions associated with mental illness and tell the sufferer to ‘Shrug it off’ or ‘Snap out of it’.  The problem with the attitude of the Minimizers is that a mentally ill person or family member who discloses to them is that they are left feeling as though there is even more wrong with them. Not only do they have to deal with the illness, they have to deal with thoughts about how there isn’t even anything wrong with them – which could lead to a stopping of treatment or medication, especially if the Minimizer is someone close to them that finds those things unnecessary – reactions that can be dangerous and possibly life threatening.

One of the other effects that a Minimizer could have on a mentally ill person or family member is the need for justification. Telling someone about an illness and describing the symptoms is a very vulnerable place to be,  it opens up opportunities for ridicule and judgment and for most who have worked through the illness long enough to get a diagnoses and treatment just to get to the place where disclosure is a possibility, being met with the attitude of a Minimizer can be devastating. Trying to explain why your illness is real, why your symptoms make treatment necessary or life difficult can lead you to actually disclose more than was intended. By explaining how your illness is ‘worse’ than the average person’s occasional symptoms – you can actually turn your minimizing friend into a fearsome friend by giving them insights that no one should know but your counsellor. If you are discussing the illness of a family member, you can end up disclosing private information, breaching the trust of the sufferer setting them back in their illness – all in the name of defending them.

I am not sure if the media has helped or hindered the ability of the mentally ill and their families to disclose. It seems that the more information that is provided to people, the more ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’  they begin to see mental illness and while that may lessen the amount of Fearsomes in society I am afraid that it is creating more and more Minimizers. By no way do we want to go back to the days of secrecy and asylums for every eccentricity, but nor do we want to go the way off ‘everyone is ill so no one is’ either. What is the solution??

For now, in this writer’s opinion, the solution lies within each one of us. the next time you hear of someone dealing with a mental illness think twice before you speak – ask yourself if you are being a Fearsome or a Minimizer and then ask for more information. And again it is my opinion that anyone who is thinking of disclosing their own mental illness or that of a loved one, please tread with caution. If you feel the need to talk, find a support group or ask your therapist for a recommendation – if you are looking for understanding from friends or other family, be prepared for results you may not want. As much as we all want to feel unconditional love and respect from those around us – what they say after their PC filter has cleansed their thoughts, may not be how they actually feel.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 at 6:31 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

55 Responses to “Stigma of the Mentally Ill – Part 1”

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