Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

What Can We Do About Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness?

A week or so ago, Elisha Goldstein interviewed me on his insightful blog, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.” Click here to get to it. I have excerpted below his question regarding stigma.
Elisha: There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness and from your writings I know you’ve heard your share. This stigma can reinforce deep feelings of shame and deepen the grooves of the thoughts of “failure.” Can you share with us a few of these statements, how they’ve affected you and what people should do when they hear them?
Therese: This is ultimately why I wrote the book … to educate people in hopes that we can eliminate some of the stigma. When I was getting ready to send out copies, I made a list of the people who would really “get it” and appreciate the book. I wasn’t going to give a copy to the family members and friends who I thought would shake their head and say something under their breath about victim me being caught up in my wounds. But Eric said to me, “It’s easier to give this to the folks who will agree with you. If you are serious about this mission of educating people about mental illness, I suggest you give it to those who might be confused or ticked off.” So I did. And I received some cold, apathetic responses. I expected that. But a neighbor approached me in tears and said she better understood a family member, and a good friend of mine called me up in tears. “I know I must have been one of those people who said hurtful things to you, and I am so sorry,” she said. “I just really had no idea what you were dealing with until I read this.”
One of the most hurtful statements was when a friend asked me, “Do you WANT to get better?” which suggests that getting better is only a matter of willing ourselves to get better, and that if I stayed suicidal for two years it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I think, if someone says something like that to me again, I might say, “Does a person with cancer or diabetes want to get better? Would you fault a person because their chemo wasn’t as effective as it should be? Mood disorders are organic illnesses, too, that can’t always be managed with will power and discipline.” Another confusing statement is that antidepressants and other medicine merely suppress your emotions. I have done a fair amount of research on that, so to that person, I would say, “If you are taking too much of a drug or are on the wrong one, maybe, but my experience is that they have allowed me to feel more deeply.”


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  • Marie

    I looked up the definition of stigma in my Chambers English dictionary and was taken aback by the definition of “shame or social disgrace”. Depression is not shameful or disgraceful but somehow we are made to feel it is.
    Seeing people that you admire and respect “come out” and admit to their depression is a powerful way to remove the stigma, especially if these individuals are in the public eye. Just to know that one is not alone in feeling this way is so helpful, but we need more than this – and this is where your blog and your book shine!
    You are doing so much to help remove that stigma Therese. After posting your interview on my blog, I had so many responses from readers saying thank you for shining a light into the darkness of depression. The more we write and talk about it, the more we normalise it, and hopefully the more we can remove that stigma!

  • Tony

    Thank you for taking up the fight against stigma. Good luck. I’ve heard it often, but I have not stood my ground to reverse it. Not anymore: I am not ashamed of who I am or what I have suffered. Not my fault, not my family’s fault. Just some bad luck with the genes. I now where a silver ribbon on my coat for awareness of mental illness. If anyone asks what it is, I will let them know. It’s time to set the record straight.
    I highly agree with your comment about how medicines when taken properly don’t numb, but awaken emotions, making one feel more deeply. While I take a lot of medicine, it has turned me from being numb and in pain with depression to now finding myself smiling and dancing to music or smiling for being at peace. However, I am not always happy: things can really upset me but that is life. I like reacting to events in a healthy way instead of them melting in the morass of depression.

  • Cassie Romsa

    Thank you for this….I am so hopeful and thankful for your blog. I just bought your book last night. :-)

  • Cindy Lou

    You GET IT!!!!!!! Your book should be mandatory reading for every psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or any other health professional! Thank God for your voice!

  • Reta

    Thank you for your writing. I have to agree with your statement about your friend asking if you wanted to get better. I suffer from a chronic pain disorder (CRPS), which is not very well known even in the medical community. We are often told by well meaning family members and strangers we should just try harder and we would get better. It is so painful when they belittle our suffering.
    Please continue writing. You are in my prayers each night.

  • Sheryl

    I have been told these same things that the drugs just numb you. Sometimes I wish they would numb me. Sometimes they do not work. And sometimes they just make me normal. There is a sea of different feelings out there. I thought the stigma was going away. But that was my own comprehension of what I thought not the reality. Loved ones have told me the same thing and I wish i could get there. I wish I could be free and happy. Sometimes I am. Many times I am not. I have tried so many combinations and my self discipline is lacking to do all the right things and then I just beat myself up when I fail. It is a never ending cycle. That concerns my Christ faith too. I am trying but never quite attaining.

  • Jill

    Thanks so much for this. I have heard from my mom at the times when she was most frustrated with me (when my depression was the worst) “Do you want to get better?!” and she having had her own problems with depression in the past, it just really hurt me to hear her say that. I am feeling much better now though and she hasn’t said that to me again. She is so happy that I am happy.

  • dustmyblues

    To me, the worst stigma and shame comes from very well meaning religious folks who have no clue about mental illness. One told me recently, “That idea that you are disturbed is a lie from Satan.” Um, no, it is the unfortunate truth about my experience in life. But there’s a lot of that kind of thinking and it really bothers me because the last thing a depressed or anxious person needs is more guilt and shame. And especially the shame that comes from a religious notion that you are being controlled by the devil because you are depressed. I am a believer in Christ, and I need to know He loves me whether I am sick or well.

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