Tag Archives: stigma

I make people uncomfortable

A year ago, I needed a new hoodie. It took me a few months of searching on the internet before I found the right one. If you don’t want to go through the link for whatever reason, it is a black zip-up hoodie with a blue ghost on the left front, and the words “It is difficult to be alive” on the back, with the same blue ghost underneath. It is merch from the webcomic Pictures for Sad Children, and oh boy did I identify with it. I still do. It is one of my favourite articles of clothing and I love it.

I’ve realised that people get super-uncomfortable when I wear it.

I cannot tell you how many strangers and acquaintances have asked to see my hoodie and followed up that request with “That’s wrong. It’s not difficult to be alive.”

It might be wrong for them, but there are countless people, myself included, who do find it very difficult to be alive. We are told day after day after day that we’re wrong, that we shouldn’t be struggling. When we openly express this, people don’t try to help us find being alive less difficult, they tell us that this is easy. Again and again, we receive the message that there’s something wrong with us and that if we say anything, everyone will know.

My secret wish is that someone will see me in my hoodie and feel validated. I want to send the message “This feeling is so common that someone even made a hoodie saying it and someone else bought it.”

My second secret wish is that the world didn’t require me to have that other secret wish.

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I’m not “just sick.”

So I have a problem with one of the tactics I’ve seen used to fight stigma for mental illness, especially mental illnesses that are commonly associated with suicide. That tactic is the one I refer to as “things aren’t hopeless, you’re sick.” I had trouble putting my problem with this into words for the longest time, and I felt like I was a terrible person because I know that it’s important to see mental health problems in the same way we see physical health problems. That’s a fundamental part of destroying stigma. I’ve finally been able to break down my problems with this argument into two sections.

First, I think that this problem commonly manifests by comparing mental illness to the wrong types of physical illness. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard “If you broke your leg, you’d go to a doctor. Why should treatment for mental illness be any different?” I’m not arguing the whole going to the doctor point, but breaking your leg is something that gets fixed and then you’re done with it. Your leg is usually fine afterwards, and that’s not the case with mental illness. It seems like a small nitpick, but people with mental illness regularly get shamed for both being on medication (and for not being on medication, but that’s a whole different post) and still needing to manage their mental health for longer than others deem is necessary. (“What, you’re still depressed? You really need to just get over it.”) I’m a lot more okay with the comparisons to diabetes in terms of access to medication, since diabetes is also a condition that different people manage in different ways.

Despite being okay with the diabetes comparison, I would prefer it if there was a stronger push towards portraying mental illness as being in the same crowd as physical disabilities.* I mean, they’re already covered under disability arrangements, but I know from reading comment threads online that I’m not the only person who has felt unable to get that day-to-day help because “having a mental illness isn’t disabled enough.” And really, while mental illness is similar to diabetes in that it can be managed in different ways and is ongoing, it is more similar to physical disabilities, which are also managed in different ways, are ongoing, are often ignored, and lead to accessibility issues (all of which are different depending on the person and their disability).

The second problem I have with this argument is that I most often see it used to talk to people with mental illness (I’ve gotten it myself more times than I can count), and that is all kinds of dismissive. I’m talking about things like “things aren’t hopeless, you’re just sick,” and “your brain chemistry is out of whack.” When you tell someone that their feelings are wrong, you’re, well, wrong.

Tangent: Some people find it useful to have other people give them reality checks (i.e. Captain Awkward has just recently had an open thread for people with anxiety where several people say they find it helps for people to remind them that the grocery store is not a scary place), but don’t just guess. Ask the person what is helpful for them. In the previous example, if you used the same tactic on me, you might think “Oh, Ariana is having trouble getting to the library, so I’ll just remind her that it’s not scary.” That doesn’t work for me. What works for me is to tell other people I can put it off until tomorrow, then surprise my brain by instantly doing the thing I was scared off. You wouldn’t know that unless you asked.

Back on-topic: I especially hear the “you’re just sick” lines when people talk about feeling hopeless or suicidal, and I can not think of a ruder thing to say to such an admission. While these feelings are common in people who have mental illness, they are not exclusive to mental illness, and, more importantly, why does having a mental illness make those feelings less legitimate? If someone who was grieving over a dead loved one said that sometimes they wished they wouldn’t wake up in the morning, would you respond with “oh, you’re just sick/grieving?” I suspect you’d be more likely to say that it was a really hard thing to go through, and, depending on how close you were to the person, maybe suggest a therapist or a support group. And really, it’s not a bad thing to suggest forms of help to a suicidal person, I’m all for that. The difference between these two scenarios is that in one the feelings are considered legitimate, and in the other, the feelings are dismissed. This is really dangerous, because dismissing the legitimacy of a person’s feelings makes it impossible to actually help them. If I can’t trust you to take what I say seriously, how can I trust you to listen when I tell you that I’m having serious side-effects from my medication, or to respect my decision to not be on medication at all? Why should I even bother telling you I’m suicidal in the first place?

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* I know that there is a lot of stigma surrounding people with physical disabilities as well, but this isn’t the post for that. I do think that people with physical disability and people with mental illness are natural allies considering that there are similar issues at play, especially considering the difficulties shared by people with invisible physical disabilities and people with mental illness.


If there is a good title for this, I can’t think of it

I kind of doubt a lot of people will agree with this entry in its entirety, and it might go a bit all over the place, but it’s what’s been on my mind for about the past month.

Okay, first of all, some people have mental disorders. Since I’m trying to stick to what I know here, I’ll focus mainly on depression and bipolar. Once you have been diagnosed with either, there is a long process of figuring out how to be able to live your life without it being taken over. Medication works for some people. Therapy works for some people. Electroconvulsive therapy works for some people. There are more. But the real challenge of these disorders is dealing with other people. I do not like to hide that I am bipolar. I accept it as a part of me, and feel that to say otherwise just to make other people more comfortable, or like me better, or anything, would be as much of a disservice to myself as hiding my sexual orientation.

So if someone asks, I’ll tell them. I am also perfectly happy to say that I am not on meds, and that I only go to therapy to please my school. I will then explain how I have learned to deal with my mood swings through being ultra-aware of my mood, and how my friends and family are more helpful than a therapist has ever been. However, there are always the people who will not trust me to function. I know that my methods will not work for everyone, just the way medication, ECT, and therapy work for some people but not others. This does not make me any less healthy. It does not invalidate the work I do, and it does not mean I should be living at home with my parents “just in case.”

If the conversation turns to the past, I may mention that I used to be suicidal. Here I run into two problems. 1) Sometimes people assume I am still suicidal, and 2) a lot of people believe you have to be insane to want to kill yourself. The first one I mostly attribute to my choice to not take medication. The people who think I am still suicidal would most likely be comforted with the sentence “I used to be suicidal, but I’m taking medication now.” The first one is irritating, but fairly easy to work around. The second one is what really worries me. Thinking that a suicidal person has to have something wrong with their brain, even temporarily, is a huge insult to the feelings and reasons of that person, whether they attempt, succeed, or just consider it. It is rather egotistical as well. Pretty much, you are saying that because you do not understand the motivations or emotions of that person, that person has something wrong with them. Of course it is fine to help that person, and prevent them from harming themself, but the moment you get into “they must be crazy” territory, you are dismissing some of the strongest pain and emotions they will ever have. Everyone has their breaking point. They do not have to have any sort of mental illness to hit it. There is only so much each person can take before thoughts of a better future can’t comfort them anymore. When this happens, I see suicide as a form of self-defence. Hopefully, it will not end with suicide, but sometimes it does, and we need to respect the decision made as being theirs.

-20 minutes left.