[This topic was requested by one of my regular readers, that is, one of the people who receive this blog via email.]
I have been stunned by the ignorance I have encountered since the 2011 suicide attempt of my daughter. Some people said she just did it to get attention. Many more people called her selfish and said she lacked willpower. And of course some thought if she had just prayed more, or harder, she would have been healed.
That’s mostly where the stigma of mental illness comes from.
I take medication for anxiety and people have said, “I’m surprised as a pastor you would turn to medication,” as if my failure to find relief in prayer was a personal affront to them, like I did it just to trouble their theology.
Here are seven things you can do to fight the stigma of mental illness.
#1. Tell your story
Stigma thrives on ignorance, and ignorance depends on silence.
If you do not tell your story, the people around you remain ignorant.
While my daughter and I have not succeeded in changing everyone’s mind about depression and anxiety, we have been able to help thousands of people become less ignorant, more aware, and more compassionate on the topic then they were before. We have also freed others to speak of their own experiences.
As difficult as it can be to tell your story, if you don’t you are helping perpetuate the very stigma that is silencing you.
Remember, your story is personal, practical, and powerful.
It’s personal because its yours. It happened to you, so no one can argue with it.
It’s practical because it gives people a chance to get familiar with mental illness through an actual relationship with you — someone who struggles with it and is open about it.
It’s powerful because stories change perceptions and changing perceptions change hearts and minds.
#2. Refuse to speak or think of yourself as a victim
You are not.
Everyone has challenges to deal with every day, and everyone’s challenges are real to them.
If you take on a victim identity, you perpetuate the stigma that people with mental conditions are weak, that we can’t cope with life, and that we shouldn’t have jobs that carry a lot of responsibility.
When I first came out publicly about being on anxiety meds, I challenged people to listen to my sermons and read my blog and decide for themselves if I seemed to have any problems thinking or dealing with my life or helping other people. Which leads to the next thing you can do.
#3. Do your job to the best of your ability…
…so that those around you see that you are more than capable.
Live the most productive life you can.
Let your life speak.
Many people, even with serious mental illness, live happy and productive lives. If you can (and I realize not everyone can), be one of them!
#4. Educate others
Once you come out with your story, you will have constant opportunities to dispel ignorance by challenging and educating people in person, on social media, and just by the way you live.
#5. Educate yourself
I’m always surprised by how many people are passive about their own physical and mental health. I’ve talked to people with cancer who couldn’t even tell me what kind of cancer they had, and people with significant mental illness who couldn’t name their condition.
This won’t do at all!
You can’t adequately challenge and educate other people if you’re largely in the dark about your own condition.
Remember, stigma comes from ignorance, so make sure you aren’t unconsciously perpetuating some of that stigma through your own failure to learn about your diagnosis. Become an expert on it. Why shouldn’t you be? If you don’t begin by dispelling ignorance in yourself, you’ll surely be of little use in helping to dispel it in others.
#6. Recruit your friends and family
Ask them to become experts on your condition, so they too can be stigma warriors.
#7. Make sure you have reasonable expectations of yourself
You can’t fix other people.
People have to be open to information before they can benefit from it. Don’t waste your time on people who seem determined to remain ignorant.
There are seven ways you can fight the stigma of mental illness.