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Burst The Silence

Last week, The Institute of Mental Health in singapore started a campaign called Burst The Silence - to encourage people to talk about mental illness.

It made me think of when and why we choose to share our stories, those of us who have been touched by "mental illness".

Recently I wrote a commentary for a news story about a man with schizophrenia who has not gone home to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his family (a very big deal among asians) for 11 years because his condition was too unstable for him to leave the hospital.

In it, I talked about my own experience four years ago when I too was given home leave to celebrated the New Year with my family.

It wasn't a long piece but it was deeply personal.

And yet I did not find it particularly hard to let readers know that I have bipolar - maybe it's because I have told so many people, sometimes even people I have met for the first time (only when I feel led to and the situation calls for it, of course. I do not go around saying, "Hi I’m Jen and I have bipolar" nor do I recommend it).

It seemed a natural progression so I was quite surprised when I got feedback that what I was doing was "pioneering" and "great". My psychiatrist asked for a copy of the article to be put up in his clinic :)

What I have done is actually not that extra-ordinary, we all have stories to share, regardless of whether we have a diagnosis of "mental illness" or not.

But in a climate of fear, stigma and lack of understanding about "mental" conditions, what I did does make a difference - and I hope I am not self-aggrandizing here - I do sincerely hope that more people will do likewise.

If we don't open up, people will remain closed-minded about us.

If we choose to be silent, others will suffer in silence because they think there is no other choice.

So I started thinking about what stops us from telling our stories.

The fear of rejection can be a reason, and then there is also the concern that people will judge our families.

The man that I wrote about was finally allowed to go home for a week and my article was about that happy development. We were at the hospital when his father, a retiree, came to accompany him home.

Both of them were actually fine to have their photographs taken, but the hospital staff who facilitated the interview felt it may affect the man's siblings ("who are still in the workforce" explained the hospital staff) so in the end we only took pics showing the dad's face.

I guess mental health stigma can and does spill over to affect our loved ones.

I have not thought much about this before because I have been so blessed by a family who has not made me feel less of a person because of my condition.

So I naturally think that people will not think of them as less of a family because of my condition.

I don't think my family members got judged by their friends because not many of their friends know that I write for the paper and of those, not many actually read the paper (sad, but true).

Maybe it is a blessing in disguise because I do not want my family to be hurt.

But there are those who know, like my neighbour John, because I told him about the article and he, of course, knows my family since we live a few doors away from him.

His response was encouraging and it leads me to think that the stigma isn't that unsurmountable after all.

I think about an event I attended that talked about fighting stigma against people with HIV/Aids - I had mixed feelings about the emphasis on confidentiality in addressing the problem of stigma.

If I am not wrong, they seem to be promoting a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

I do understand that there have been people who don't get a chance to even be interviewed for a job because they declared their medical condition on the application form. So I am for the idea of not asking for the information at that stage of pre-employment.

But after getting the job and being able to meet the work expectations, I do think continued silence, i.e. "don't tell" on the part of the employee with a condition, an be counter-productive if people take it to mean that they should never let their bosses/colleagues/friends know.

Aids/HIV stigma has much to do with misconceptions about how people can get infected, and possibly the morals of the person with Aids/HIV (I do not agree with this, but it is real at the moment).

On the other hand, mental illness stigma has to do with misconceptions that the person is fundamentally unpredictable, unreliable, incompetent etc.

The stigma is so real that companies hiring people with mental illness don't want any publicity about this.

I once tried to do a story for companies that were nominated for a national-level Caring Employer Award because of their hiring practice, but I was turned down because the companies felt the public would be afraid to use their services.

I was sad - to think companies will be happy to be praised for hiring ex-convicts but they feel the need to hide their hiring of people who committed no crime, whose health condition was not something they asked for. What an indictment of the society we currently live in.

So in speaking out, there is a real risk that not everyone will be understanding and unfortunately, there may be unfair condescension and judgment that comes our way if we are deemed "average" in our work performance...

But I feel the cost of collective silence (not just us as in those of us with mental health conditions, but all of us as a society) is too high...suicide being the tragic consequence of many with mental illness.

Which means each person with a condition needs to decide whether to take a risk...I do hope more of us do, because in so doing, the collective risk is somehow decreased.

Because people will slowly start to realize that we can lead the lives we want, instead of letting a diagnosis spell the end for us.

If we all keep silent then we can't really entirely blame the public for only having a negative image of people with mental illness.

As someone who works for a newspaper, I am aware that the references to mental illness are very often associated with violence or ridicule.

So we need to give people another view of what it means to have mental illness.

The simple fact that we are alive means we have beaten the odds against us -

We are survivors and we need to bravely share our stories, if not for ourselves, then for others who need to hear our journeys towards self-awareness and self-acceptance, rocky as that journey may be.

Yes stigma is real but maybe it is like a bubble around us, it keeps us limited and isolated if we don't dare to burst it by speaking out.

But when the force with-in the bubble overcomes the atmospheric pressure outside, the bubble will burst.

Friends with "mental" conditions, if you are reading this, I pray you believe that you are a person of substance. You have what it takes to burst the bubble.

The force is not just with you - the force IS you.

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