Everyone I have ever talked to within the mental health community has an acute awareness of the social stigma of their condition. They could jeopardize their career, could lose their friendships, or even have their family torn away from them. We are all aware that people look at us differently, fail to trust us with important tasks, or even skip over us completely.
But stigma affects us in ways we dont think about very often.
In my personal experience, outward stigma has never been much of a factor. Once I came to terms with my diagnosis of Bipolar Type I, in my late 20s, I immediately spoke with my Human Resources manager, and my department manager about what type of care I would need and what it would mean for my availability and work schedule. Not only were they extremely accommodating, my department manager opened up to me about a close relative suffering as well and it was something we were able to bond over.
I eventually lost that job, but only after being on medical leave for nearly nine contiguous months, pretty hard to say they werent cooperative. It only took me a couple of months to find my next job, my current job. I spoke up in the interview about my illness, and how it might require care, like the Electro-Convulsive Therapy I would receive just a year later. I got the job without problem and my boss understands when he receives a text on any given morning simply saying, not coming in today.
I went public about my illness on social media and I didnt hear a single negative word in response. I did get hundreds of texts, emails, phone calls, and public responses that all supported me and wished me well. I now write my own blog about my struggle with mental illness, and no matter how dark the material can get, I rarely hear any negative things.
That isnt to say I am foolish enough to think those thoughts about me arent out there. I am sure people have brought me up in conversation and talked about their disgust of either my condition, or my apparent lack of shame about being public with it. But, I never hear it come back to me. Stigma, in this form, has never hurt me.
But there is a form of stigma that directly hurts me on a daily basis. It is something we rarely talk about, but it is so overwhelmingly at the forefront of this issue that it needs to be addressed. I mentioned that no matter how dark my moods can get, I never hear a negative comment. And that is true, but the disturbing thing is that I rarely hear a positive one during good times either.
My friends dont talk about it; my family mostly doesnt talk about it. I tend to find out that lots of people were talking about it through the couple of people that do come to me. And they unload that they had a half dozen conversations about me, and everyone is worried, and they have become some kind of mental health liaison.
But why dont those people just come to me? I have found that there is a common misconception that talking to a person about depression is some kind of no-no, like whispering the words no-hitter in the seventh inning. People worry that they will become a trigger, they worry that they will be the reason something happens.
Everyone is worried about being the cause, but no one seems to care about being the help.
The word needs to get out there that conversations of concern dont have to be daunting. There are not magical words that make it all go away, but they also dont make it so much worse either. Most people will never be a trigger to deepen your depression or anxiety. Let people know that if they are concerned about you they should say something to you.
A lot of people on the outside of mental illness do not realize that those of us inside often cannot see clearly what is happening. It might take us a week or two, or more even, to realize we are sliding into depression, or often worse, ramping up into mania. Early recognition, like with so many diseases, can be the key to staving off bad behavior and unwanted situations. The people around us can help us so much, but only if they speak up.
The only way we will open the conversation about mental health is to make sure the people who want to talk to us, do.