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Stigma and Mental Health Awareness Month: A Conversation

Olivia

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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Mental Health Awareness Month is upon us, and the darling Katie Suss and I thought it would be fruitful to cover a range of topics related to stigma and discussing mental health with peers. There are a few bases that we want to cover, so we’re gonna do this conversation style. Katie and I are sitting in a quaint little coffee shop with some cinnamon donuts as we discuss, and we hope that our thoughts are helpful to you.

Katie: I’m really glad we’re doing this.  Even though times are changing and people are more inclined to speak out, mental illness is still something we try to hide – and for no good reason.

Olivia: I’ve gotten a few questions about how and why I’m so candid about what I’m going through at the moment. To that I say, the premise of this website is to expose the darker shades of the human psychological experience, but why is that important? How does the average person incorporate this candor into their own lives? I sometimes skate over these questions and I want to dive deeper into them, today.

K: I totally understand. I’ve noticed that I myself have been more up front with people about my anxiety (to varying degrees), and I feel better about my struggles and for being my own advocate. It’s not easy to be honest, especially on such a public forum like this, but it’s 2019 and as good a time as any. What do you think we (along with so many people) are deciding to make their voices heard, and why is it so important that we do so?

O: Humans are constantly seeking connections with others, the needy beings that we are, and we’re usually successful. A lot of our experiences as people are easily shared, but there are darker elements of humanity that make people uncomfortable; it’s classic fear of the unknown. Mental illness does not affect everyone, so folks’ natural inclination is to avoid discussing it, lest they alienate themselves from non-sufferers. I get that. But as rates of mental illness and suicide (especially in youth) continue to climb, it’s becoming increasingly important to make that first step into the unknown. In 1999, the surgeon general at the time labeled stigma as the greatest global barrier to mental healthcare, and mental healthcare is the greatest global economic burden of all health sectors. As social critters, we feel safer when we can share. It’s crucial that we find ways to unite in our most difficult experiences with each other.  For years, I knew well the shame of suffering in silence, which is not merely uncomfortable. It’s debilitating.

K: And that’s the main mindset we need to change- in those who are suffering and those who are not.  Mental illness is not shameful, and we should not be thinking of it as if it is. We have been socialized in a world where illness is defined by physical symptoms that we can pinpoint, and for so long, people who were mentally ill were dismissed as “faking” or “attention seekers,” and that therapy was bogus or for weak people.  Of course, none of these things are true, and we know now that mental illness is just as valid and painful as physical illness – and that they can even exacerbate each other.

Next to the coffee shop… Shopside Talks?

O: On that note, I know that Katie and I both try to be conscientious of the terminology that we use when it comes to mental illness, but we’re not always perfect.

K: Yes! So many enculturated terms are hurtful and incorrect, and can make people even less inclined to talk about their struggles.  Words like “crazy,” “psycho,” “troubled,” and “disturbed,” are derogatory and inaccurate. Also, it’s important to remember than mental illness is only part of a person’s identity; it does not define that person. (For example, say, “She has depression” rather than “She is depressed.”)

O:  I’m even guilty of this! It’s hard to get down. In the nascent era of the blog, I used the phrase “committed suicide” to refer to the act of killing oneself. A polite commenter reminded me that the word “committed” implies a nefariousness to suicide that doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of the act. If the act is phrased as aggressive, criminal even, it makes suicidality even more shameful and renders those who are experiencing it less likely to reach out for help. I immediately edited my wording.

K: And even if you’re keeping up and getting everything right, starting the conversation can still be difficult.  Friends and family want to be supportive, but often don’t know how or where to begin.

O: Right. In the past month, I’ve been inundated by overwhelming support from family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, but that only came after I took the leap of publicly reaching out. Knowing how to communicate about mental illness is the stepping stone between silence and de-stigmatization. What are some ways that have worked for you, both in reaching out and receiving outreach?

K: Well, first of all, it’s much easier when you have a close, comfortable relationship with someone… like we do, sisterwife ;).  If I’m having a bad day or an anxiety attack or I’m spiraling, I know I have a small network of people to whom I can always talk. However, others are not always so fortunate, so if you have a friend, coworker, or even acquaintance who you think may be having a hard time, it’s best to at least let them know you are around.  Even a simple, “I’m here”, or “Are you doing okay?” can go a long way. Social isolation is real, folks, and it’s never good for people to wallow in their own hurt.

O: I can attest to the helpfulness of this. A friend of mine recently worked through a tough night with me simply by listening and humbly offering what advice he could, with no expectation that it would be life changing. He plentifully validated the pain that I was experiencing. The simplicity but import of just being present for someone cannot be overstated. Presence lets the person know that what they have to say has value and deserves space to exist.

Sometimes, however, I’m not great about responding to outreaches. Katie has a lot of experience with me wallowing so much that I can’t even muster a simple returning text. It’s important to, within reason, let someone know that you’re continually there for them, if you know that they’re struggling and that they would appreciate it.

Finally, I’ve heard concerns that, perhaps, talking about mental health and suicide will actually trigger the two. Luckily, this hasn’t been proven to be true, and the opposite is more accurate, in fact. Open up to others and let others open up to you. We’ll all be better humans for it.

Sharing your story with even one person takes a lot of courage, but every time you come out and say “This is a part of me, and I’m not ashamed of it,” it gets that much easier for you and others to know that no one is ever totally alone. Each journey is different, but during Mental Health Awareness Month, Katie and I hope that you’ll consider taking some steps towards sharing your experience with others, and making time for others to share with you.

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One thought on “Stigma and Mental Health Awareness Month: A Conversation

  1. [Since you screen comments before putting them up, I thought I’d write this and let you decide whether or not you want to post it. I will definitely not take offense if you choose to not put this up. If you do decide to show this, please delete this comment. Thanks!]

    I really enjoyed the format of this post. May is also Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month (https://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.org/may-bpd-awareness-month/) and I have recently started pushing back against some of the stigma associated with that particular disorder. My principal efforts with respect to that goal so far are:
    1. About two months ago, I started doing a weekly YouTube video about BPD (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUUXeTGrurtv-T74FfPzFAg). I wound up super busy this weekend so no video for this week but I’ll definitely be back with a new one next weekend.
    2. I’m participating in ‘Beirut in Portland’ (Beirut in Portland is a theatrical event and community project interested in the effects of societally based fear-mongering and stigma on individuals. https://www.beirutinportland.com/#!) Specifically, I’ll be onstage after the June 2nd matinee, and possibly a second performance, to do a talk back to the audience about the stigma I’ve faced due to things like my BPD, drug addiction and eating disorder.

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