I normally post online about Muppets, coffee, musicals and cats, (not Cats the musical, the furry-animal-kind) but recently all I’ve been posting about is the Kenneth Cole billboard that links mental illness and gun violence. Why? #1 Because it perpetuates mental illness stigma. #2 The effects of that stigma are devastating.
Yes, I am now on a tireless quest to get people to understand why the billboard basically ate my soul when I saw it. CRUNCH! Don’t worry- I recovered my soul, undamaged. Souls are really durable.
I posted a blog critiquing the billboard on Facebook which was mostly ignored.. (got maybe 2 likes) I’ve had friends say, “What’s wrong with the billboard again?” I got 318 likes on another post.. but that one was about my hair.
Believe me, I miss my tweets about Kermit and the keyboard cat, too, but for now I need to focus on something more important. (I’m so sorry, keyboard cat. We will unite again)
You might say, “Wait… me? I don’t stigmatize people with mental illness! Why am I even reading this right now?” Well, you might be surprised at how our culture and the media’s view has seeped into your consciousness in ways you don’t even realize. (That sounded creepier than I meant it to) Super kind-hearted friends have said things to me about mental illness to “help” that felt like more like a punch in the stomach. Even I need to work on the way I see myself and others with mental illness. (Hey- I’m calling myself out here, too!)
Here are 10 reasons why you (and I and everyone else.. *cough* Kenneth Cole) need to stop stigmatizing people with mental illness.
#1 It makes people resist getting help.
Those three words, “I need help,” floated around behind the curtain of my mind for so long. They’d peak out.. peak a little more… and then run back to hide again. I felt them trying to slide out of my mouth, because they were so desperate to be heard, but shame would push them back again and I’d swallow hard. When they finally escaped they wore a lot of costumes. There were in a lot of, “I thinks” “Maybes” and “I’m not sure’s” to cover what I really needed to say.
When we make people feel like there is something odd/shameful about struggling with a mental health issue, we make it extremely hard for them to admit that they need help. When they finally do, often the effects of the illness have already wreaked havoc in their lives. When it should have been their first step, it’s their last resort. Adding shame, guilt and fear on top of already unbearable emotional pain is the worst thing we can do. When people don’t ask for help they continue to suffer and suffering is exhausting. It can lead to suicide.
#2 It makes people feel like monsters.
I remember telling a friend that I had depression and took medication for it. The next day she told me, “I had a dream last night that you were chasing me with an ax because of what you said about depression!” Um… excuse me? I was so confused and SO hurt. Me? The girl who took a cockroach out of her apartment to set it free? The girl who gave the building exterminator an orange freeze-pop and asked him to please NOT kill the mouse? The girl who helped the homeless man who had fallen (that a crowd of people was ignoring) and held his hand until he calmed down? This made me never want to tell anyone else.. ever again.
The stigma surrounding mental illness causes people to feel like monsters when they are actually valuable, wonderful human beings who deserve respect, care, and for their courage to be celebrated. The media shouts and obsesses over extremely fearful things like, “DID THE MASS KILLER HAVE MENTAL ILLNESS?” or “MONSTER SHOOTER HAD DEPRESSION” but they NEVER show you all the people with mental illness that are doing phenomenal things in this world. They never show you Kay Redfield Jamison, who is a brilliant psychiatrist with bi-polar disorder. They don’t talk about how Harry Potter author, J.K. Rolling, struggled with depression. They don’t show you the moms, dads, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, composers etc. They hide the Mozarts and show the scary people whose names I don’t know because I don’t watch the news. (I have anxiety, people! LOL) The media does such a disservice to those to suffer with mental illness and continually misrepresents who they really are. I guess fear sells but it also shames and shame is poison to the spirit. (Sorry- I get really indigo child sometimes) Studies show that people with mental illness, as a group, are no more violent than the general population. They are more likely to be victims of crimes. End. The. Stigma. #endthestigma (Join us on Twitter!)
Enough with the shaming. It’s cruel and it’s so tiring. See how exhausted these people are already? And it’s only #2.
#3 It makes you accidentally hurt people you care about. (And you look uneducated about the topic)
“Wow! Someone didn’t take their meds this morning!” I heard a teacher say this recently. I was offended because this joke always describes someone acting like a total tool. People who forget to take their medication don’t suddenly act like the people you’re insulting for acting “crazy.” No one jokes about other medication… because it’s not funny.
Think of all the people you interact with and care about in your life. Ok, so one out of four of them have a mental illness. You never know who is listening and how your joking or comments affect them. Educate yourself about mental illness before you make hurtful jokes or get on your soapbox. All the cool kids are not stigmatizing anymore, so you don’t want to look like a goober. (All the cool kids are also not saying goober… Opps) Anyway, you don’t see me writing an article about diabetes because I haven’t read the research… Don’t preach about what you don’t know.
#4 It makes people feel alone.
Person 1: (tentatively) Well, I’ve been struggling with depression.
Person 2: (awkwardly) Well…. I HAVE TO GET GOING! GOOD-LUCK WITH THE…(whispered) depression!
When people don’t talk about mental illness (or whisper it like the word itself is dirty and ugly) it makes people feel like it’s uncommon and that they are a total anomaly for not being cray-cray happy all the time. It makes them feel like freaks because they can’t, “Just smile!” and like they are the only ones who have ever felt this way since the beginning of time. It’s isolating, when community and connection are so important in healing. I thought I’d always be the odd one out because of my wackiness. Now I have super odd friends and we are all awkward and wacky together. We need to know that our people are out there. We need to know that one day we will be welcomed with open arms.
#5 It makes people go off medication.
I heard so many lame comments from people that I trusted (with no medical background) about medication, that I went off of my medication probably about 10 times. I tried every alternative therapy known to man and gave 100% each time (fish oil, acupuncture, amino acids, diet, cardio daily, hypnotism, EMDR, CBT, mindfulness therapy, every self help book ever written, etc) but always ended up in the same position without the medication. This was awful for my body and completely exhausting emotionally. Each time I had to go on again I felt guilty and like a failure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a hippie indigo child. I did not want medication! It was a brilliant, compassionate psychiatrist who sat me down and said, “Stop it,” who finally changed my life and my attitude. She said it wasn’t weak to take medication; it was strong. It wasn’t cheating at life by taking it; I was cheating myself and everyone else by continuing how I was. She explained to me intellectually what was going on and why I need it. She changed my life!
Mental illness is not just sadness or experiencing negative emotions. You can’t give someone advice about their treatment if you are comparing it to your own sadness. It’s like me saying, “Oh I just ate a doughnut and my blood sugar is probably higher than usual. Let me give you advice on how to treat your diabetes. You shouldn’t take insulin because that’s weak. I’m actually an expert on this… cause of the doughnut.” I’m sorry but your doughnut is not a medical degree. If it was I’d be a way over qualified doctor. Yes, some people use diet, exercise and alternative medicine but NEVER, EVER shame or act like someone is weak if they need medication. It can have devastating consequences.
Yes, it might be over-prescribed in our country but that doesn’t mean those who need it shouldn’t take it! Before you tell your cousin Mary to go off her meds and try berry smoothies and yoga, think about it. Before you tell your BFF that your friend Joe eliminated sugar (but he has amazing willpower) to cure his depression, think about it. It’s not appropriate.
#6 It makes people feel like the future is bleak.
I moved to New York City about five years ago (from a small town) and I’m a grad student at NYU with a 3.9 average. (4.0 last semester!) I just got chosen as a Dramatists Guild Fellow and am going to be working with Broadway professionals on a musical I’m writing about mental illness. I’ve won two National songwriting contests. Even cooler than that, I have amazing friends, a supportive community, I volunteer and I get to teach amazing kids. I am so happy. I got through the darkness and my life is brighter than I could have EVER imaged. I’m like, wearing sunglasses right now… seriously. But there was a time when I couldn’t imagine these things for myself because I didn’t see those awesome role models with mental illness, like Kay Redfield Jamison. I only saw super scary mental illness stigma. I started worrying I could “go crazy” at any time and lose my mind. I didn’t know how to paint a beautiful picture of the future because I wasn’t shown enough of these paintings. (Van gough would have been a great example! LOL)
People with mental illness need to be able to come of out the shadows stand proudly in who they are. We need to create space in order for them to do so. Stop throwing tomatoes at them and throw flowers! They deserve so many flowers. Our culture and media needs to celebrate their courage and speak openly about their experiences. I know its tough to be vulnerable and talk about pain, but it’s tougher to lose more people to these diseases.
#7 It makes people feel weak.
Person 1: I had depression once.. but I was just SO strong and cheered myself up with positive thinking and by reading The Secret. You attracted your depression and with strength and being diligent about your thinking you can get over it.
Person 2: Nope.
When we shame people for needing to ask for help and get treatment, it makes them feel weak and embarrassed. We need to change our perception of this because it’s wrong and super old fashioned. It takes TREMENDOUS STRENGTH and BRAVERY to ask for help and stay with treatment. It takes so much strength to go through the nightmare of figuring out which treatment will work, read magazines in waiting rooms from 1993, tell your story over and over, have people treat you like you’re the Hunch Back of Notre Dame (Great musical, BTW) feel like you have a war inside of you, and keep up with the care that goes with a chronic illness. It’s bad-ass. It’s not three little kittens lost their mittens, it’s warrior status.
#8 It makes people get crappy care.
Resident: (pumped) Hi! Great to meet you. I’ll be here about a month so I think we can develop a really solid relationship. I can meet with you for about 5 minutes today to hear your entire history!
Patient: (sarcastically) Super.
Care for people with mental illness should be top-notch (I mean.. wait… we are talking about the BRAIN, here, right?) and it’s so bad. It’s just so bad. It’s expensive, crappy or just completely unavailable. We get treated like we’re kids, talked to in condescending manners, and treated like we are subhuman. The insurance companies put us on hold and play music from an elevator in the 80s for 45 minutes to then just deny our claims. Their favorite line is, “There’s nothing I can do, ma’am/sir!” (Is it in their manual or something?!) The only doctor in our network is Dr. McDoesn’TGiveACrap. The psychiatrist sees us for 10 minutes and then expects us to take and stick with medication for the brain without any hesitation. (Hence why I couldn’t trust any psychiatrists until I found that awesome one) The secretaries tell us nothing is available for three months but we can try the ER. Compassion and humanism are missing, and they are EVERYTHING. We should be treated like the smart, capable people we are.
#9 It makes people not know what’s wrong with them.
I remember when I started having OCD and anxiety. I was so ashamed that I had to flip a light switch and count things. I didn’t even know that OCD was a thing. I thought I was just some kind of freak. I felt like a prisoner of my mind and was too ashamed to say anything so I just stayed trapped.
We have to educate kids, teens, and adults about mental illness or they may not even know that what they are going through is common, treatable and has nothing to do with their character, who they are, and all that they can be. When we are silent, they stay suffering and silent. They mirror how we feel about it. I like to say, “I have a fabulous life.. and a mental illness” because I know if I see it that way and believe it (and it is true) that you will believe it too and see it as a possibility. Stop trying to decide for me who I am, what I am capable of, and what my treatment should be (unless your my doctor you can decided the treatment thing) Stop defining me. It’s not your job.
We have to change our perception of people with mental illness . Education and awareness are key! I like to write really positively about it, because I honestly believe mental illness comes with gifts, talents and unique ways of seeing the world. I like to think of mental illness as having so much terrain to explore in your mind. You might get lost but it’s ok because: THERE ARE MAPS. You just need to find your maps. But we have to let people know about these maps. We have to let them know they can be Dora the Explora or Diego and.. whatever Diego does. Maybe we need a PBS show about mental illness… with muppets.. (See, I wrote this blog and feel better so now I can talk about muppets again) We have to let people know that they can build with their pain instead of destruct. Intense feelings can be an asset. Mental illness can be beautiful.
#10 It’s not compassionate.
We have to have compassion for people with mental illness and compassion for ourselves. Compassion will make everything cold and stagnant feel the warmth it needs to blossom again.
*PS I’m not a therapist or medical person so this isn’t psychological or medical advice
* If you are struggling, please get the help you need and the care that you deserve! It is SO strong and brave! Keep going!