In today’s mental health climate, there is arguably no hotter topic than stigma.
It’s something that sufferers, advocates, charities and governments alike are trying to curb, and justifiably so, given that studies have suggested that as many as nine out of every 10 people with a mental illness feel that stigma has negatively impacted their lives.
With these stats in mind, I’ve often wondered why I fall in the 10% that hasn’t been affected by stigma. I’ve been even more curious over the last four months during the launch of my Depression Is Not Destiny Campaign, because now I do not have a single friend, acquaintance or family member who is not aware that I started suffering from depression in 2008 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010, which led to alcoholism, drug abuse, medicine-induced psychosis, near-suicide attempts and multiple hospitalizations before my eventual recovery in 2012. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve met in my life, I have never, ever felt stigmatized against in any way. In fact, to the best of my recollection, I can only recall anyone saying anything even remotely derogatory on one occasion.
Yes, just once in the last six years.
Now a big reason for this is definitely just luck—I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful family and friends who are far too open-minded to be prejudicial towards anybody. But after much consideration, I’ve concluded that there’s also more to it than that. So without further ado, below are five things people with depression can do to stop being stigmatized.
1. Be comfortable with the fact that you have a mental illness
I can talk about having bipolar disorder in as calm and relaxed a way as I can talk about sports, girls, current affairs or the weather, because I’m 100% comfortable with the fact that I have a mental illness. And when you’re so at peace with it that you can chat about it in such a nonchalant way, then that ease and comfort will come across in your body language and your tone of voice, and rub off on whoever you’re talking to—particularly if they don’t know much about mental illness themselves.
2. Instead of complaining about having a mental illness, channel all that energy into trying to recover
There are people on Facebook who post statuses like, “Why do so many bad things happen to me? What have I done to deserve this? It’s not fair that I have a mental illness! My life is so shit! I just want to die!’ and then the next week complain that because of the “mental health stigma”, they are losing friends.
My heart goes out to these people, because I know how devastating mental illness can be. But the truth is that if you do this, you’re not losing friends because people are “stigmatizing” you—you’re losing friends because most people don’t like listening to other people complain all the time.
When you have a mental illness, you have two choices: to whinge about it, or channel that energy into trying to get better. And when you do the latter, people are far less likely to “stigmatize” you. In fact, they’re likely to have a new found respect for you, because you’re facing your demons and working hard to beat them—and almost everyone loves a fighter.
(P.S. Just so you know that I practice what I preach, I developed my bipolar disorder because of a doctor’s negligence—I was given the wrong medication, which had a freak reaction with my brain; after weeks of alternating from being extremely suicidal to delusionally manic, I wound up in a pysch ward. When the psychiatrist told me what had happened, I just accepted it, and focused my energies on trying to recover. It worked – for the last two years I’ve been symptom-free, and now live a very happy, healthy life. Complaining and feeling sorry for yourself, on the other hand, doesn’t get you anywhere.)
3. Don’t define yourself by your mental illness
There is much truth to the aphorism “the way others perceive you is often a reflection of the way you perceive yourself”. If you don’t define yourself by your mental illness—if you understand that it’s only a small part of you—then the way you carry yourself will reflect this belief. As a result, others are much more likely to perceive you as the amazing person you are, instead of just a diagnosis.
4. Be honest with yourself
What I’m about to say will annoy some people, but it needs to be said: there are times when people claim they’re being “stigmatized” or “not being understood by people ignorant about mental illness” or what have you, when really, they’re living in denial.
For example, when you’re suicidal, and someone says: “you are really unstable––you need to get help”, they are not “stigmatizing” you, because the truth is, when you are suicidal, you are unstable, and you do need help.
When your partner breaks up with you because instead of getting help for your mental illness, you drink 20 standard drinks every night and rant and rave at them until you pass out, they’re not breaking up with you because they’re “stigmatizing” you for having a mental illness, they’re breaking up with you because you’re not handling your mental illness properly, and as a result of not doing so, you’re ruining their life.
There are of course many times when we as people with mental illnesses are unfairly discriminated against – and that’s horrible. But there are also times when we blame stigma in cases when it doesn’t exist—which isn’t fair to the person we’re accusing of stigmatizing us, and it’s of crushing detriment to our own mental health and welfare.
5. Take responsibility for recovering from your mental illness
When you take responsibility for your illness and you commit yourself to fighting your demons until you beat them, you command people’s respect. Most people love a fighter. They root for them. They want them to succeed. You can be as mentally ill as can be, but if you’re able to look another human being in the eyes and say, “yeah, I know I’m struggling right now, but I’m going to do everything in my power to beat this, and one day, I will”, then far more people than not will look back at you and say, “wow … I admire your resolve. And I really hope you do it”.
Now like I said at the start of this post, I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by great friends and family—but in saying that, I strongly believe that these five practices have significantly contributed to me having never been stigmatised during all the years I’ve had a mental illness. I’m not saying that you’ll never get stigmatized ever again after adopting these five thought processes—there will always, of course, be ignoramuses out there—but I truly believe you that you’ll feel far less a victim of stigma than you currently do now.
If you enjoyed reading this post, I encourage you to download a FREE copy of my memoir here. Recounting my struggle and eventual triumph over depression, I wrote it so that sufferers of the illness could realise they are not alone – that there are other people out there who have gone through the same excruciating misery, and who have made it through to the other side. I also wrote it so that I could impart the lessons I learned on the long, rocky, winding road that eventually led to recovery – so that people could learn from my mistakes as well as my victories – particularly with regards to relationships; substance abuse; choosing a fulfilling career path; seeking professional help; and perhaps most importantly, having a healthy and positive attitude towards depression that enables recovery. Multiple-bestselling author Nick Bleszynski has described it as “beautifully written, powerful, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring … a testament to hope.”
Photo: Matt Anderson/Flickr