With stigma, there’s an assumed inferiority people have had while interacting with me. Even for myself, I have my own self-stigma that contributes to this feeling of inferiority at times. Over the years, I’ve had so much stigma towards my own diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder that I usually just refer to it as schizophrenia. This happens especially when disclosing the diagnosis to new people.
During these conversations, my emotions and my fear have been so high and it has taken so much courage to disclose any mental health disorder, that I usually just say schizophrenia for not wanting to explain what schizoaffective disorder is; this being schizophrenia with an emotional component, which for me is bipolar disorder. It’s felt a bit like a double whammy to be required to divulge two diagnoses as opposed to just one, never mind while they’re both labeled by the term schizoaffective disorder, which I never in my entire thirty-four years have heard mentioned on any television program whatsoever, never mind de-stigmatized. Having the awareness that it has never been mentioned and is completely absent from most people’s knowledge base makes it even more difficult to mention.
While chatting with people about mental health, I’ve found there are many assumptions that are made which are sometimes subtle and other times fairly overt. Over the years, while getting back into the dating world, I’ve heard a number of people mention “Maybe you want to just date someone else who also has a mental health disorder?” A number of people mention it as a recommendation to others with mental illness as well who are getting back into dating. This is one of the more overt forms of discrimination I’ve found.
The problem starts with labels. People assume since I have a certain diagnosis, that of schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia, that I’m immediately going to gravitate towards a partner who has that same diagnosis. This assumption circumvents the idea of true love, true love being just genuinely enjoying spending time with your partner because you have good chemistry and your personalities are a match. It’s sometimes hard for some people to believe that two people can love each other regardless of whether either person does or doesn’t have a mental health diagnosis.
There are definitely times where I’m interested in dating others who have had mental health struggles but not because we both have a diagnosis, it’s because there’s genuine interest. People assume that since we have the same label attached to our experiences that we must have something or enough in common to want to date one another. There’s a sequestering that happens within this notion, that someone with a mental health disorder is not fit to date someone who is within “the realm of mentally healthy people” or that it wouldn’t work out and that maybe they should not actually look for true love, but rather, look for someone else who has a mental illness and who is going to understand their mental health experiences. This notion of otherness is incredibly damaging and sends a message saying, “Since you have a mental health diagnosis and we don’t, we’re healthier than you and you are less than us. You also need to have awareness around this and stay sequestered within your own group.” In short, it’s a form of social segregation.
Even along these lines, there are many people who don’t have mental illness who aren’t willing to date someone who does. While out with some friends, someone within the group who identifies as not having mental illness was talking about a dating experience where the woman he had been talking to and getting along with mentioned she couldn’t hang out with him because she was within in-patient care. He commented on this somewhat as a joke and also stated how once she told him this all bets were off and he immediately called off communications. This young woman, who he seemingly got along with really well, at least well enough to have been communicating with and chatting with for a short while, suddenly was written off because she had a mental illness. Forms of discrimination like this are pretty common.
The thing that people don’t understand is that a diagnostic label in psychiatry is a categorization of symptoms, meaning there are symptoms that are happening which can fall under any diagnosis, however certain groupings of symptoms tend to fall into categories. This means having the diagnostic label does not determine your personality type and who you are as a person. It’s a general categorization which means it doesn’t really even give you a fully accurate picture of what someone is experiencing mental health-wise never mind otherwise.
People don’t understand that my mental health isn’t at all my personality and when I’m experiencing symptoms this is not a characterization of who I am. Seeing visions of things that aren’t there for others doesn’t have anything to do with my likes and dislikes, my personal choices, or with my identity whatsoever. It’s just something I experience, the same way mental health symptoms are just experiences, and they’re not actually a part of my identity. Behaviorally there are sometimes effects the illnesses have had on me, however, these effects are usually temporary and are reactions to stressors connected to trauma.
Many people with trauma react and behave adversely when there is a stressor, which still doesn’t indicate that’s who they are. One could argue that having a wider emotional range could contribute to my personality, which I do identify with, however, while having a wider emotional range I am just as disciplined when experiencing these emotions if not more so than anyone else, and this is the case for a number of people with bipolar disorder. For me, being a good person and taking good care of everyone in my life is not thrown by the wayside when my emotions are higher or lower. I simply just have more discipline. The moments where I am feeling more extreme emotions may not show externally but I feel them internally.
Another subtle form of discrimination I sometimes hear are conversational assumptions people make when I’m talking about my life. I’ll mention to people who know I have schizoaffective disorder that I went out Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night and I have many times gotten the response, “Wow, your social life is better than mine”. Within this response there is surprise towards the quality of my social life, the fact that I may have more friends than the person I’m talking to, I have the ability to socialize, and I am having more fun. All this surprise is structured around the implicit message of “How can all these things be possible if he has a mental illness. He’s not supposed to have any of these things in his life given he has a mental illness? How could his social life possibly be better than mine?” In short, a number of people with mental illness have really rich social lives and have rich friendships and relationships as well.
There were a number of years where I was fairly incapacitated from my mental health struggles and I’m doing a lot better now. Sometimes when I’m teaching, people mention they can’t imagine that I could have been struggling as much as I had in the past. People also mention they can’t imagine that I even have schizophrenia. This is coming from learning providers, but it makes me ask what their expectation truly was?
How can your expectation for the outcome of someone’s life not be that they are going to fully recover and live a full life? How can you damn someone to a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy of not fully recovering? In my recovery, there were many years where I couldn’t imagine living the life I currently do, but there were a number of people who believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. This belief is what fueled me to continue forward in the face of stark adversity, and working on my mental health every day to regain my mental, social, and emotional abilities to have a meaningful life. If we’re making assumptions as a society that send a message of chronicity, otherness, denunciation, and hopelessness, how is someone going to overcome this as well as the primary problems they have to face? How will they ever develop the belief in themselves that putting forth work towards getting healthier is going to be worthwhile, and then proceed to do that work? Stigma is killing hope thus reducing courage. Courage is fueled by hope.
The point I’m making is that stigma perpetuates self-stigma and self-stigma is a barrier to recovery. I remember in the first several years of care I had providers who didn’t fully believe in me therefore I didn’t believe in myself. My mental health didn’t improve and I had a second hospitalization. What would have become of my life had I not met a therapist who truly believed I can and will live a full life again? The answer is that I most likely would not have put in the work to improve my own mental health, thus pulling myself out of the depths of a hellacious state of being.
This societal stigma contributes to provider stigma which also turns into self-stigma thus suppressing an innumerable number of people and creating a barrier to their own self-care, that of which is preventing them from getting healthier. In these instances, it’s not that there’s an inability for people to get healthier. There’s a lack of confidence that any effort put forth will be worthwhile therefore people don’t put forth the effort and instead there’s suffering.
This post is republished on Medium.
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