I spent twenty years with occasional severe depression before I told most people anything about it, anything at all. It nearly killed me. It would have been a safe bet at the time that it would kill me: I knew how to make it so and I acted. Later, I withdrew from most of my friends and family to avoid the topic, skipped decades worth of rich and wonderful experiences, largely skipped my 20s and 30s. Why?
Stigma. It’s powerful stuff, powerfully poisonous stuff. Because of stigma, you never know how someone will respond to your illness, and once you’re open about it in any way, there’s no going back. Some people understand, others don’t. Some people think they understand, seem to understand, but then they start interpreting every little thing as a symptom. You can’t feel distrust without question of paranoia, can’t get irritated or have a bad day just like everybody does without dark suspicions. To them, you are now illness – you ARE your illness and nothing more to them. Contrary to all evidence on the topic, for example, people see those people with mental illnesses as dangerous, threatening, unacceptable, WRONG. They don’t see people with problems, no, they see problems that are people. Hence all the secrecy, the hiding, the self-imposed isolation: it’s a reasonable, rational, prudent response to an unreasonable, irrational, imprudent culture. We each do what we must to survive, yes?
Yet the cost is extremely high. All that lost help and support, social contact, networking, the lost income and opportunities, the lost experiences…
After someone kills another, even a rumor of mental illness “explains” the act, right? Well, no, the true answer in exactly the opposite, yet in mainstream culture, people “know” countless untrue ideas with pride and confidence. Why should stigma be an exception? When ignorance, fear, and hatred combine in such as way, the result is toxic indeed: it causes much if not most of the suffering we attribute to mental illnesses. Stigma is far more dangerous, damaging, and costly than are the people it targets. Yet we continue to focus entirely on those with the illnesses, as if they own the countless acts, attitudes, and ignorance of the millions of people who don’t suffer these illness, but worsen them every day, openly, proudly.
On all the countless occasions when people hide instead of seeking help and support, stigma causes them deep harm. For tens of thousands of Americans every year, stigma is lethal. A large majority of the deaths involving guns in America are suicides, not homicides. We lose more Americans to suicide in a week than to terrorism in a decade, yet it all goes ignored, and thus tacitly accepted. By our lack of willingness to even discuss this relentless killer, Americans might as well approve of it. The results are the same. We give it free rein and focus our energy on matters we care about. That behavior and attitude is completely unacceptable. It’s dangerously irresponsible. It will not stand.
So some of talk about it, openly and often. We will not let this topic linger in toxic seclusion anymore. We will push it back the way you push back dark secrets and hidden evils: by openly taking a stand. We will make the topic commonplace, unavoidable. We will push everyone to make their position clear, and thus make it easier for those in need to find sympathetic ears. We will make it so hard to avoid education that the only remaining ignorance will be clearly volitional, desired, planned. We will not rest until the only remaining stigma will be towards such ignorance and hatred. No more pretending we’re neutral or that the struggle isn’t there: all must take a side. Neutral in this case amounts to complicity with fear, ignorance, and hatred: that will not stand. It will not!
I offer this example, the post that triggered my own:
No more shame and silence! The more of us stand up and take on the risks involved, the less need for any of us to hide at all. We needn’t hope to avoid defeat: no! We can seek victory, and we can get there, too, we can do it with numbers, persistence and unity. We can, and we will. Personally, I insist that it will be so.
How about you? What side do YOU choose?