By Jennifer Peterson
Like a shadow, it cannot be shaken. It hides in corners and feasts in the dark, preying on its victims from afar. It alters their minds, forever distorting the way in which they view their own self worth. It devours confidence, crumbling it into microscopic, incomprehensible pieces of nothingness. There is no place to escape its presence, for it exists de facto. It is a way of thinking, one so deeply ingrained into the minds of the masses that it is now a societal norm.
This beast, this incorrigible monster, is called stigma.
Stigma can be synonymous with words such as “shame” or “disgrace” in association to a particular group of people within society. Those on the receiving end of stigma are forced to cope with unwarranted prejudice; and a collection of individuals who perhaps take some of the most devastating blows are those diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder, which is more commonly referred to as bipolar disorder.
It is infinitely important to note that there is no one mental disorder which does not suffer from being stigmatized in the United States of America on some level of severity; however, bipolar disorder is special due to the way in which it is so commonly, and inaccurately, discussed above most others. For example, when experiencing any arbitrary shift in emotion, one can often be subjected to hearing the phrase: “What are you? Bipolar?” These words are not only insensitive in nature, but they create an assumption in individuals that bipolar disorder is the instant switch from happy to sad, or from carefree to brooding. In other words, someone who is diagnosed with this illness is viewed in virtually the same manner as a person who is wishy-washy or like a child undergoing a bad temper-tantrum.
For those who have a slightly more pronounced understanding of the ramifications of the disorder, it may be inferred that depression is involved toward some effect. However, due to lack of knowledge about to the precise extent of its role, the two are often confused as being one in the same. And while bipolar disorder surely includes certain stages of depression, classified in the 5th Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “major depressive episodes,” it is erroneous to assume they are identical. But because this association between depression and bipolar disorder is so widely shared among citizens, the two are often stigmatized in a homogeneous style as well.
The aspect that sets these two apart from other mental illnesses, and without question leads to more confusion when distinguishing one from the other, is the fact that both depression and bipolar disorder are considered types of mood disorders. It is easy for others to judge someone with a mood disorder because it is a battle that takes place within the patient’s own mind. This means that it cannot be analyzed by touch or sight in the way people might examine someone with a broken leg, or in some cases, visually see the malnourished body of a person who is fighting anorexia nervosa. Therefore, consideration for the severity of mood disorders is taken far less seriously by the public, an attitude that causes stigmatic assumptions to be made, including ideas such as: “They’re just faking it to get attention.”
Surrounded by such hurtful negativity, victims may start to feel separated from the rest of society, estranged by those who say, “Get over it,” or, “We all get sad sometimes. Just smile more.” Comments such as these, while not always meant to be malicious, can lead to feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem. It is important to stay away from using these words as it can lead to dire results. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90% of children who die from suicide have a mental illness. So if someone opens up about his or her bipolar disorder, it is important to simply lend a listening ear while being as understanding and open to the subject as possible. It is better to offer support rather than uninformed advice.
The most secure method of terminating stigma toward bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses within the United States is for people to take the time and educate themselves on the subject. It can be as committal as taking a beginner’s psychology course or as effortless as looking up an informative article online, but the gesture nonetheless is one of immense significance. Organizations such as Passion for Change and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance are national examples of what the American community can do when coming together to abolish these prejudice thoughts. No one deserves to be treated inhuman for his or her disorder, and everyone deserves to be correctly understood. Today is the day to change the circumstance of tomorrow and to rid the world of that demoralizing monster known as stigma.