Side Effects of Stigma

When I was twelve years old, my big sister and greatest hero ran away from home. That was the first time I realized that no amount of love I could give her would change her, and that mental illness is not a solitary, independent disease; it affects everyone who loves the affected person. That day, though my brain was not the one affected, mental illness broke my heart.

I was fortunate to grow up understanding that mental health was just as biological and involuntary as physical health. I knew going to a psychologist was equivalent to my pediatrician. I knew there was nothing bad about my sister. She didn’t do anything wrong. Something about her just worked a different way. Tagging along to weekly psychologist visits was routine for me for as long as I could remember.

As I got older, I started to hear different ideas about what they called “mental illness” than what I had understood my sister to be. “Crazy” was a term often used to explain someone showing strong or seemingly uncontrollable emotions. Hollywood showed mental hospitals as the setting of countless horror movies. Crying and sadness were seen as weaknesses by my peers. I knew my sister was sad, but she certainly wasn’t weak. She was the strongest person I knew.

My sister could climb trees higher than I could ever imagine climbing myself. When she’d fall and scrape her knee, only light would shine through. She was the person who rescued me from the dark; every night I crawled out of my little bed and into hers, knowing very well she would save me from whatever monster hid under it.

I watched her grow, as I grew too. I watched her fears turn to sadness and she became a person that I knew she wasn’t. I believed that this wasn’t really her; it was an outside force that she had no control over. And in many ways, it was.

For years I’ve heard my friends and television show scripts minimize mental diseases into categories of weakness, or attention seeking. Talking about symptoms was seen as complaining, and blatant calls for help were either ignored or ridiculed.

But mental illness is not weakness. I was lucky enough to see that firsthand through watching the bravest person I know fight for her life every day.

And what is so bad about “seeking attention”? It is at our very core that we pursue affection and attention. It is a biological need and survival skill to feel supported and cared for, especially though times of sickness, whether it be physical or mental. You wouldn’t criticize a person going through cancer treatment for asking for support or for sharing their diagnosis and struggle. So why blame a person going through mental health crisis? Both are biological, painful, and feel uncontrollable.

Over 75% of suicides are related to clinical Depression. Why would anyone voluntarily go through that kind of pain? Why would you choose that path, if there were a choice you were able to make?

The stigma comes from decades of misunderstanding and misinformation. For years, mental health was seen as a health of the mind, rather than the brain. The mind is the figurative idea of one’s thoughts.  Mental diagnoses have been thought of as curable by “positive thinking,” like reorganizing folders in a filing cabinet. Therefore, the stigma starts with this idea that behind every mental health diagnosis is a person who is simply doing something wrong. And they only need to be taught how to do it right.

But mental health is not a way of thinking. It is every bit as physical as diabetes or breast cancer. It is not just a sickness, it is a disease. Mental health should be recognized as the health of the brain, not the mind. The brain is a physical part of human anatomy, containing chemicals and cells and veins that change and move and reproduce just like every other part of the body. It is not some theoretical, intangible representation that can be changed and altered through “positive thinking.”

As in every other organ or body part, something can fail to work as it should. The pancreas can fail to have a proper insulin production, resulting in a Diabetes diagnosis, chromosomal abnormalities may result in birth defects, and the brain can fail to produce certain chemicals, resulting in diagnoses like Depression, Anxiety Disorder, and OCD.

The only difference between the brain and other parts of our anatomy is that there is not a theoretical intangible representation attached, but factually unrelated, to these other organs or cells.

In this day and age when so little is understood about mental health, or the separation between physical brain and theoretical mind, many people suffering from serious mental illness are challenged doubly. They struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that come from the disorder but at the same time are irrevocably challenged by the prejudices, generalizations, and stigmas that result from misconceptions about mental illness. As a result of this lack of understanding, information, and access to legitimate treatment, people with serious mental illness are easily robbed of opportunities that define a quality life; everything from good health and satisfactory health care to equal job opportunities.

Although research, especially in recent years, has gone a long way in means of understanding the impact of the disease, it has only begun to widely explain and disprove the stigma.

My sister has climbed trees higher than I ever could. She has saved me from monsters and bad dreams. She taught me to play Ghost in the Graveyard in the dark and moved across seas during her first time being away from home. But never has she been braver or had more strength than through her lifelong battle with mental illness; an involuntary disease that is simultaneously crippling from the symptoms and isolating from the stigmas.

I hope one day she can look at her long life of struggling and overcoming, extremely low lows and the courage that brought her out of it, and instead of feeling shame and embarrassment for silently suffering from a such a stigmatized disease, she can be free and proud of how much she’s overcome.



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One thought on “Side Effects of Stigma

  1. Josie,

    I love, love, love this story. It is so beautiful to see a younger sister advocate and empower her older sister. It is hard enough to struggle without others contaminating those very real struggles with the doubts that your struggle isn’t real or that it makes a person less than they really are. I hope others read your story and see how you and your sister struggled with the strength that you both clearly possess.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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