Sunday, June 18, 2017
Bill Clinton once said 'Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.' It is incredibly sad to witness stigma directed at a person who is mentally unwell and it is equally sad to see it happen online. What's perhaps even more difficult is when there is stigma in families, so people suffering are left feeling isolated and unsupported. I count myself lucky in many ways, I didn't suffer like many do with my family but the insidious nature of stigma still raised its head.
When I received a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in my twenties, my father, a remote man, became visibly upset and told me he understood as there had been 'a woman with bipolar on casualty, spinning around on a plastic swivel chair and doing laps of the corridor.' (Casualty is a long-running drama centered around a fictitious A&E department in England). I suppose I could have been upset by this flippancy but I already knew my parents wouldn't understand. Although on a practical level they may have helped when I became unwell: driven me punctually to doctors appointments, reminded me to pay bills, helped me keep on top of housework, taken me to the supermarket and this practical help cannot be undervalued, what I often wanted more is emotional understanding and support.
During one particular dark period, whilst at a shopping center, I bumped into a friend of my mothers between the racks of M&S. My depression was such at the time that I feel didn't particularity communicative so made my excuses and snuck into an overly hot, overly crowded cafe. My mother upon hearing of this encounter, said “oh good heavens, they will wonder what's wrong with you now – I think I will tell them you have 'a touch of anxiety.' She seemed rather pleased with this inventive excuse – cue a self-satisfied swish of the hand - whereas I simply inquired about the truth, but truth is relative and anxiety is still a mental health issue, just not one that will make others feel uncomfortable. I must add at this point I don't know what a touch of anxiety is, it sounds like a throwback to 'it's just his nerves' or maybe its a god awful rash.
A few years after being diagnosed, I had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Once I began to feel less bone achingly depressed, I took the kindly offer of occupational health classes, downstairs in a small claustrophobic room. I made Christmas cards – though it definitely wasn't Christmas. I did Tai Chi sitting on a chair – bit confusing. I went for a brisk walk around the hospital grounds. I went for a jog around same grounds in the cold pouring rain. I made an Easter card, though it definitely wasn't Easter. And I made a pink bauble.
After a while, I began staying behind after sessions to help tidy up – the only other option would be to go back up onto the ward – a sort of hopeless green walled, worn carpet, monotonous place or to sit in my room staring up at the bleak barred window or waiting for a fly by visit from my mum. One day, as I stuffed paper and pencils back onto shelves, the lady who ran these sessions, who I thought very nice, asked what I wanted to do with my life. I had just turned twenty three, so a reasonable question, except I didn't know of course, so I told her this and added, as an afterthought, that I might go into the care profession.
'You have to be careful you know, you won't really be trusted.'
I didn't know what she meant. I wondered what sort of untrustworthy person I was supposed to be. I said 'what do you mean?'
'After Beverly Allitt, the nurse, the mentally ill aren't trusted.' (Beverly Allitt killed four babies in her care in 1991, attempted to murder three more and cause grievous bodily harm to six. She is serving a life sentence and it is believed suffers from Munchausens by proxy).
I would like to tell you I had a quick fire response or that I stepped upon my soapbox to defend the mentally ill or that I eloquently tried to educate – although one normally concludes those working in psychiatry, in whatever capacity, will be educated, open, non-biased and not fond of perpetuating stigma. Unfortunately, I did none of the above. I simply skulked away, upset, humiliated, horribly disappointed with tears in my eyes.
It feels perverse to be diagnosed with an illness, any mental illness in fact, and then, whilst struggling/crawling through it, to find one of the most notable and persuasive side-effects is society no longer accepts you. It sounds absurd to put it like this but for many, this level of disregard, is a daily occurrence. We have come so far as a society in accepting a myriad of things - but still can not find our way to destigmatize mental illness. Are we really, beneath all the progress, no farther forward than asylums – a penitentiary for the less appetizing parts of being human – a reminder as T S Eliot said that 'humankind cannot bear very much reality.
I spoke about my experiences (past and recent) with friends a few days ago, those also with mental illness, and I found myself saddened because my experiences are far from unique. People have suffered unbearable pain, and yet had to trawl through hellish stigma – at the very times they needed the most love, kindness and understanding.
With all this in mind, I have begun a hashtag - #NameThatStigma to help raise awareness of the added suffering we have to contend with whether dealing with depression or Schizophrenia. It's a way to show each person they are not alone, we are here and to show those who don't suffer, who may never suffer that there is nothing more absurd than being treated like a pariah because one is ill.
So, please, join me by sharing your experiences of stigma on Twitter using #NameThatStigma – it's time to put stigma where it belongs - in a box called societies shame.
Bio: Hetti is a writer living in Scotland. She is a freelance writer by day, a fiction writer of night, and a very tired person in between.
She is founder of We Are The Beautifully Weird Facebook community - supporting people struggling with mental illness and/or providing an inclusive space for anyone who has ever felt they don’t quite fit in.
Hetti is also adopted and explores this over at Psych Central at her blog, Adoption: Rewriting Our Narratives and runs #AdopteeChat on Twitter – every Wednesday, 8-9 BST.
She is currently finishing her second novel whilst trying to publish her first.
It's a great honour for me to appear on Rebecca's website today. I want to express my gratitude for the fantastic opportunity and thank her for all of her support. She really is wonderful.