What would it mean to have a society where mental illness has no stigma? First of all it would mean equality. Years ago when I took disability leave for a severe bout of bipolar depression the company I was working for took it upon themselves to fire me while I was on leave. Would I have been fired if I was out for cancer treatments? Maybe, but it would have been perceived as being very cold-hearted. It’s almost acceptable to fire someone who goes on leave for a mental illness. Who expects us to recover and live healthy, happy and productive lives?
Losing my job a week before Christmas and in the middle of a major depressive episode, my state of mind became even worse. It was as if I could not get a break anywhere I turned. I don’t know why they really fired me, but the evidence pointed to the fact I had written an untimely email and copied the CEO telling them I was suffering from a bipolar disorder episode. In my “right” mind I would have never written the letter, let alone sent it to the CEO! But I didn’t get any leeway even though they knew I was suffering with a mental illness. I had been in the business for 16 years and had a very successful career, except the last six years had been really hard because of my mental health state. If I could have taken the time off I needed to get well and not have felt any repercussions from it I may have been able to continue working in the field I developed an expertise in. But this is not how things turned out for me. Stigma impacted my ability to stay gainfully employed.
When something like losing a job because of your illness happens it’s really easy to blame yourself for having a mental illness. We are already taught that we are “less than others” because of our conditions. Very often we are left off in the emergency room for treatment and don’t see a loved one again for several days. Going to the psych ward is perceived as an embarrassment and an experience not too many want to talk about with others. The stigma of mental illness effects whether or not people get treatment, because the very treatment we seek is entrenched with stigma factors.
Having no stigma would mean some people would not be able to make jokes about people who were suffering who were “crazy.” It would mean we would take care of those who had mental illness in a compassionate way with enough resources available so people could get the treatment they needed.
In a world without stigma those of us who are unlucky enough to have a mental illness would have no self-stigma. We would not feel guilty about being sick. We could work on getting the right treatment without the many fears that accompany self-stigma. Accepting our condition would be easier and looking for solutions would be our focus, instead of spending so much time going through fierce denial. Getting a proper diagnosis would be a relief instead of a “sentence.”
No stigma would mean we could keep our friends who would have a general understanding about what we were going through. They would not be afraid to interact with us and would look at us with the same respect they once had before we were diagnosed. The dynamics of relationships would not change to the extent that our friends no longer wanted to interact with someone who had a mental illness. We wouldn’t feel as if we had a plague and people wanted to distance themselves from us.
In a world without stigma the general population would understand mental illness was not just a disease of the poor or homeless. They would know mental illness can affect every socio-economic class regardless of education or income level.
Finally, a world without stigma would mean greater research dollars would be allocated to find cures and better treatment. We would not have to gain 60 pounds with medication trial and error. We could take medications without feeling like a “zombie” and continue on with our daily lives. Symptom free would be the expectation not a far off hope. Knowing the treatments would work would give us all a greater sense of relief and confidence to move on with the rest of our lives.
I hope I’ll see the day when the stigma surrounding mental illness is something we talk about from a historical perspective and when we do we all shudder to think this is how we treated a large percentage of our population who suffered with these illnesses. Society will one day be ashamed at how they acted. One day the days of mental illness stigma will only be a memory.