Does the Stigma of Mental Illness Still Exist? By Madeline Sharples
A few months ago my cousin came to our house to review and discuss the family history my husband had been writing. After reviewing the material, he made one request – leave out the part about his father’s bipolar disorder. In fact he didn’t want any discussion in the history of the mental illness that permeates my side of our family.
That was proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists.
My husband complied with his request; however, I openly discussed my grandmother’s, uncle’s, mother’s, and cousin’s mental illness in my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On; A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. I truly believe that their genes passed on bipolar disorder to my son.
My son was a young adult, age twenty-one, when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And throughout the seven years he struggled with the disease, I thoroughly believe the stigma of his mental illness stopped him from a treatment program that might have saved him from his destiny, suicide. He worked during the last two years of his life for a internet service provider, and when the people in the company heard of the reason for his death they were shocked to find out he had any illness whatsoever. He was a master at hiding his bipolar symptoms. He didn’t want to take his meds, he didn’t accept needed hospitalizations, he just tried to act as “normal” as he could. If he had followed the advice that is currently offered, such as admitting something is wrong, not feeling ashamed, seeking and following treatment and support, accepting help from family and friends, he might still be alive today1.
Stigma can be exhibited in several ways: bullying, physical violence, harassment, negative remarks, calling a mentally ill person crazy, portraying a mentally ill person as a sociopath or violent in films and television, or characterizing a mentally ill person as weak and stupid. And some of the harmful effects of stigma can include, according to the Mayo Clinic staff:
• Lack of understanding by family, friends, colleagues or others you know
• Discrimination at work or school
• Difficulty finding housing
• Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover mental illness
• The belief that a mentally ill person will never be able to succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation1.
Knowing the causes will help erase stigma and enable a search for ways to get help if needed. Mental illness is caused by a disease of the brain, actually a chemical imbalance in the brain, much like a physical disease such as asthma or diabetes. Physical illnesses need treatment, so do mental illnesses.
Since genetics is one of the biological causes of mental illness, find out if there is any mental illness in your family, because if there is, you could be at risk. Other causes of mental illness could be brain defects or prenatal damage. There are also psychological and environmental causes that can trigger this illness if a person is susceptible. I believe that stressors in my son’s life triggered his first manic break. So, the more we know about the causes of mental illness and the more we are attuned to the fact that the unusual behaviors of mentally ill people are symptoms and not the cause, the easier it will be to erase the stigma associated with it.
The most important way to erase stigma is to open the conversation about mental illness. As Glenn Close, who has a sister with bipolar disorder and a nephew with schizoaffective disorder, says, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect not only individuals, but their families as well.”
So for us to converse about it intelligently, we must know what mental illness looks like. Here are a few aspects of it, according to Hugh C. McBride :
• Mood swings, agitation, and anxiety
• Altered sleep patterns (excessive sleeping or insomnia)
• Loss of focus or inability to concentrate
• Drastic weight changes (either gains or losses)
• Fatigue or exhaustion
• Loss of interest in hobbies, sports, school or work, or other activities that previously were important
• Decline in academic or work performance, frequent absences from school or work, and skipped classes or important meetings
• Thoughts of death, expressions of wanting to die, discussions of suicide
• Substance abuse (including the abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription pills)2
Contrary to the misconception that mental illness cannot be treated, therapy, short or long-term hospitalizations, and prescribed medications specific to the type of mental illness can help. Mental illness cannot be cured, but it can be treated. Unfortunately if it is left untreated there are many dangers. These include addiction to alcohol and/or drugs for those who are self-medicating, and the one I am most familiar with, the risk of suicide.
Since my son died by suicide as a result of his bipolar disorder, my mission has been to erase the stigma of mental illness and to discuss mental illness and suicide openly and often. Only then can we hope to save some lives.
1Mayo Clinic staff, “Mental Health: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness: False Beliefs About Mental Illness Can Cause Significant Problems. Learn What You Can Do About Stigma”
2Hugh C. McBride, “Stigma Keeps Many Teens from Getting Mental Health Treatment”
Madeline Sharples has worked most of her life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer, and proposal manager. She fell in love with poetry and creative writing in grade school and decided to fulfill her dreams of being a professional writer later in her life. Madeline is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On, a memoir about how she and her family survived her older son’s suicide, which resulted from his long struggle with bipolar disorder. She and her husband of 40 years live in Manhattan Beach, CA. Click Here to read more about Madeline Sharples