On Disclosing Mental Illness: Challenge Your Fears, End the Stigma

by | Sep 24, 2014 | Mental Health

On Disclosing Mental Illness: Challenge Your Fears, End the Stigma

by | Sep 24, 2014 | Mental Health

Tonight I attended a panel discussion on mental illness stigma called ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’.

A person on the panel who holds a prominent position in the public spotlight made an off-hand comment that she had rushed to tonight’s event from an appointment with her psychiatrist.

When asked how she felt about disclosing this information she told the audience, “Outside of my family, tonight was the first time I have told anyone I see a psychiatrist.” Applause. She said, “I hope by disclosing that I can give hope to people… remove the mask that we all have surrounding normal, human experience.” However, she went on to say that she feels “very embarrassed” telling other people in her workplace, and has her monthly psychiatrist appointment in her diary as a doctors appointment with a ‘Dr. K’.

I could hear the fear in her voice but wanted nothing more than to praise her bravery and thank her for sharing this information. But, I realised – it shouldn’t be considered ‘brave’ to talk about mental illness: When the audience was asked to raise a hand if they had been personally affected by, or knew someone who had experienced, mental illness – all hands went up in solidarity. It seems that, in spite of the incidence of mental illness, we still fear its discussion and so consider it ‘brave’ to disclose.

Every time I speak to a high school, university group, or community group, I tell them about my experience with mental illness; specifically, anorexia, depression, and anxiety.

And every time, just before disclosing this information, I feel the deepest sense of fear.

I fear that people will invalidate my experience – tell me that, at 42 kilos and hearing voices, that I wasn’t really ill.
I fear that people will laugh at my appearance.
I fear that people will tell me that I am just a failed dieter, or that it was good I became ill, or that my illness was ‘just a phase’.

Each time I speak the fears lessen. But, even if they just surface for a split second, they leave a deep mark on my consciousness.

The reactions I have to disclosure of my mental illness experience could not be further from these fears. Just like the audience response to the prominent woman who disclosed her psychiatry visits, the reception I receive from people is overwhelmingly positive, sincere, and touching. The reason why I believe this is the case is because taking a fall, feeling lost, alone, and scared are human experiences that we all share.

With mental illness, there is no ‘us and them’, no matter how much we subconsciously or consciously try to make the distinction. I don’t believe it is brave to share with each other what is inherently universal. It is only brave because of the stigma we have surrounding the experience of mental illness, which causes us to stigmatise others’ and stigmatise ourselves.

I believe that stigma reduction begins with each of us looking at our own prejudices and shifting them. Let’s challenge fear. I am going to re-double my efforts to shift my fearful thoughts.

Instead of fearing that people will invalidate my experience – I want them to know that my experience made me stronger.
Instead of fearing that people will laugh at my appearance – I want them to know that my appearance tells a story of hope.
And, instead of fearing that people will tell me I am a failed dieter – I want them to know that I was the result of what happens when we tell people that there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are, and offer thinness as the solution.

When we remove self-stigma we allow ourselves to remove stigma directed at other people. The result will be that the prominent woman on tonight’s panel will no longer tell her staff she is seeing ‘Dr. K’ but that, in the best interests of her health, she is seeing a mental health professional – a psychiatrist.

Not a brave act, just one which acknowledges the roller-coaster journey that is life.