“Are you on Facebook?” Those four little words make me cringe more than anything. Never did one sentence cause so much fear and anxiety. Then I have to weigh very carefully how I respond. There are questions I ask myself about the person: Are they open-minded? Will they understand? Every friend I have on Facebook, I trust. I trust that they won’t freak out when I share mental illness awareness pictures, blogs, and videos. I trust that they won’t go to my employer and expose me as having a mental illness. A lot of trust goes into my Facebook account.
When I get a friend request, I think to myself, I hope I don’t have to message them apologizing for not being able to add them. You probably wouldn’t be surprised at this point if I told you that I have two Facebook accounts. One Facebook for my private life and one for my public life.
Stigma is real which is why as an elementary school teacher, I can’t add students or students’ parents on my private Facebook account (no matter how much I want to). It makes me sad that society has such a negative perspective of mental illness. I would like to share my personal battles and triumphs with everyone without having to remain anonymous, but it seems like our society is not ready for that yet. Society is so much more comfortable accepting every other illness as legitimate except for mental illness. The one thing everyone needs to know is that it is not our fault. It is an illness like all the rest and just as much of a struggle as any other illness because it affects the brain (the center to all functions).
There are so many ways people with mental illness are stigmatized. It could be from: friends, family, strangers, workplaces, businesses, doctors, hospitals, schools, teachers, professors, coworkers, health insurance companies, and the list goes on. If you have a mental illness, then it’s guaranteed for you to be judged according to the stereotypes of your specific illness. For those suffering from bipolar disorder, the stereotypes I’ve heard include that we’re: lazy, moody, fornicators, cheaters, liars, violent, selfish, criminals, horrible parents, and again the list goes on.
There have been too many times to count where stigma has touched my life. In fact, I have encountered stigma from all of the previously mentioned people and places. I’m not going to discuss all of those times but I will talk about a couple that stand out in my mind.
I was talking to a lawyer one time and he asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was an elementary school teacher. He was shocked and asked how that was possible since I have bipolar disorder. My immediate thought was, can people really be that ignorant? Am I supposed to have some criminal past that prevents me from having a job such as that or that people suffering from bipolar disorder should be on some registry that prevents them from working with children? I’m not sure what he was thinking exactly, but a lot of people seemed shocked that I can have bipolar disorder and still have a job where I interact with children every day.
Surprisingly, some people think those who suffer from mental illness like I do should not have an influence on children at all, either as parents or teachers. This has become even worse with all the violence in the past few years. The Sandy Hook shooting is a prime example of how mental illness is wrapped up into one big stereotype. This event and the subsequent media attention made me go further into the closet about my illness. Who knows what someone would think about a teacher with a mental illness? I think most of them would consider me more of a risk rather than making a difference in children’s lives.
Another instance is going to a doctor, hospital, urgent care, or minute clinic. I dread the question, what are you taking this medication for? I would say 80% of the time I am treated differently after they find out why I take a mood stabilizer and anti-psychotic. They believe the symptoms I have are all in my head or that I’m there for the attention. It has been so hard and frustrating to find a doctor that doesn’t judge me by my illness and truly takes me seriously when it comes to my symptoms. Just like me, you can find a good, understanding doctor so don’t give up on your search and continue to be an advocate for your own health.
The good news is for all those people who judge and accept the stereotypical view of mental illness, there are the same number of people who are understanding and don’t judge. I am lucky that most of the people I have allowed into my life are very understanding of my illness and support me wholeheartedly through the challenges I face every day. The support I have from those people have helped me continue to succeed in every area of my life and speak out against the stigma of my illness.
For more about stigma, check out these links: