Mental Illness and Stigma

I have bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) and am very open and transparent about it. It is not a character defect it is a brain illness. Yet, still society looks upon mental illness with condescension and judgment. This is wrong.

While I realize that I may not be able to change the world by writing one blog, I can try to change some of that stigma by sharing some of my own thoughts – from the perspective of someone who has a mental illness.

First of all, the key to shifting the paradigm of societal misperceptions about mental illness is to recognize the very simple truth that, in most cases, it is caused by a dysfunction of the brain. The brain is an organ in our bodies, as are the heart, lungs, liver, and pancreas. It is the organ that the medical field understands the least yet, it controls everything about us; our speech, our behavior, our thought process, our physical movement, and our emotions.  Herein lies part of the problem, because the brain controls these vital parts of our lives, we see the symptoms in a way that causes others to fear, to judge, to misunderstand.

With that fact in mind – that mental illness is actually a “brain” illness – here is an analogy that may provide a little insight. Imagine that I have cirrhosis of the liver and that everyone could see my liver on the outside of my body. A diseased liver is a hideous sight, so most people would automatically be repulsed, be fearful, judge and misunderstand the illness that I have. No one (except a doctor or coroner) wants to see such a horrible thing – it is uncomfortable, it evokes emotions that are negative and eventually results in a negative response from people.

How is a brain illness different? You may be able to come up with all sorts of reasons why, so here is more food for thought.  Think about what types of brain illness are considered more “socially acceptable” – Alzheimer’s, dementia, PTSD, autism, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Traumatic Brain Illness, and learning disabilities. In response to these examples, one might say they cannot help it; “something” caused those brain illnesses.

“Something” also causes brain illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, mood disorders, schizophrenia and various other types of mental illnesses. Although not completely understood, they are recognized by the medical field to be caused or influenced by things such as genetics, trauma, natural changes in brain chemistry and substance abuse. Again I ask, how are these different from the “socially acceptable” brain illnesses that are referenced above?

Like it or not, society must begin to recognize mental illness for what it is – an illness of the brain. I recognize that stigma about mental illness exists and will for some time, but it is only by being transparent and informing others about it that this stigma will be reduced.

People who do not have a mental illness, will never fully understand, but are those who have mental illnesses beyond some level of human compassion? Everyone is affected by mental illness, either directly or indirectly through a relationship or just by the person wandering the streets lost in their own mind.  Many people with mental illnesses do not have a voice simply because they are so ill, which is why it is so important to be a voice for them.

Finally, consider this. Many of the things that we experience and have today, would not exist were it not for people with mental illness.  You see, people with mental illnesses also have an amazing ability to create, to write, to compose, to imagine the impossible, and to think critically – to change and affect society in positive ways. Here a just a few people with mental illness who have contributed to life as we know it:

POETS

Emily Dickinson

T.S. Elliot

Victor Hugo

William Blake

Walt Whitman

Robert Lowell

Edgar Allen Poe

WRITERS

Hans Christian Anderson

John Bunyan

Charles Dickens

Isak Dinesen

Ralph Waldo Emerson

William Faulkner

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Herman Melville

Tennessee Williams

Ernest Hemingway

Leo Tolstoy

COMPOSERS

Hector Berlioz

Charles Ives

Otto Klemperer

Sergey Rachmaninoff

Giocchino Rossini

Robert Shuman

Peter Tchaikovsky

Hugo Wolf

NON-CLASSICAL COMPOSERS AND MUSICIANS

Irving Berlin

Stephen Foster

Charles Parker

Cole Porter

ARTISTS

Vincent Van Gogh

Ralph Blakelock

Francesco Bassano

Paul Gauguin

Hugo van der Goes

Michelangelo

Adolphe Monticelli

Jules Pascin

Georgia O’Keeffe

Jackson Pollack

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

George Frederick Watts

OTHERS

Leonardo Da Vinci

Isaac Newton

Abraham Lincoln

Charles Darwin

Thomas Edison

Albert Einstein

Walt Disney

Buzz Aldrin

Ben Stiller

Robin Williams

Leonardo DiCaprio

Elton John

So, the next time you think of mental illness, think of some of these people and the contribution that they have made to our world. God created them in an amazing way so that they can help us see and understand our world in unique and wonderful ways.

Would you show them any less respect? Would you turn away if one of them were someone that you loved? Would you reach out to them if they were on the verge of committing suicide? Would you have any less compassion for them? My prayer is that the answer is no.

If you have a mental illness, you have probably experienced stigma, as have I. My opinion is this, if someone places stigma on me because of my mental illness, then he or she probably should not be around me; I don’t want that to interfere with how I live my life. Just like any other human being, I deserve compassion and acceptance, not judgment and disdain.  This will likely result in people I love and care about turning away from me because they do not understand. But I will not allow that to bring me down, cause me question God as to why He made me this way, or think less of myself.  I have lived that life and refuse to do so anymore.  I am unique, wonderful and worth knowing and loving – with or without my illness.

Psalm 139:13: “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous – and how well I know it.”


Raised in the Midwest, Molly Messer discovered writing as a way of coping with a tumultuous life resulting from an unstable family, sexual abuse and assault, trauma, and a genetic predisposition to mental illness. Molly has had extensive technical writing experience in the environmental field. However, her passion is to share relatable stories and information in ways that encourage and inspire others. Her insatiable desire to learn and teach combined with transparency and deep compassion for others, enables her to reach out in unique ways through the written word. She started her first blog in 2012 (www.godmycomfort.wordpress.com) with the desire to find joy in the midst of sorrow after her father’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. She recently started to write blogs for The Clinical Christian delving into the challenges of mental illness and stigma related to mental health both inside and outside the church.

 


Molly Messer

Raised in the Midwest, Molly Messer discovered writing as a way of coping with a tumultuous life resulting from an unstable family, sexual abuse and assault, trauma, and a genetic predisposition to mental illness. Molly has had extensive technical writing experience in the environmental field. However, her passion is to share relatable stories and information in ways that encourage and inspire others. Her insatiable desire to learn and teach combined with transparency and deep compassion for others, enables her to reach out in unique ways through the written word. She started her first blog in 2012 (www.godmycomfort.wordpress.com) with the desire to find joy in the midst of sorrow after her father’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. She recently started to write blogs for The Clinical Christian delving into the challenges of mental illness and stigma related to mental health both inside and outside the church.


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