I have a dear friend who has been bedbound with severe, clinical depression for several months. Recently, I was expressing my concern regarding my friend to my mom, when my mother commented, “Yes, but don't you get frustrated with her?”
“Frustrated?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well, frustrated that she won’t just do something,” my mother responded. I sat in stunned silence, shocked and amazed that even after all the years of dealing with my own depression and bipolar disorder my mom obviously still didn't get it.
“Mum, she has a disease! If someone has cancer you don't get frustrated with them, do you? She is physically not capable of getting out of bed and functioning.”
The remainder of our conversation dealt with how the media is full of news about how the stigma surrounding mental illness is disappearing. But reactions like my mom's -- who, I might add, is a very sensitive, compassionate, caring woman – show me that perhaps we haven't come nearly as far as we'd like to think. I’ve watched in dismay as friends have fallen away, stopped calling, stopped asking after my friend. And it's true – if she had a tangible, physical illness, that would not happen. But because she suffers from an invisible illness, and a mental one at that, people think she must not really be as sick as she says, or that she must just not be trying hard enough to get well.
So how do we effect breakthrough in getting rid of the stigma? Sure, some celebrities have spoken out. But WE are the ones who need to speak. WE, the every-day moms and dads, the teachers and nurses and secretaries and pastors and students. I tell anyone who will listen that I have bipolar disorder. Some would argue that I tell people when it's inappropriate. But I’d rather make a few gaffes then be silent, when speaking up could help break the stigma for even one person. It's amazing how many people open up once I broach the subject. And it’s amazing how much ignorance is alleviated once a conversation is opened.
Talk about your illness. Tell people how you really are when they ask. Those who are not sincere will stop asking pretty quickly. It's only through information and education that we can break down the walls of shame and ignorance that surround mental illness. Be well my friends. Be well, and be heard!