People’s reactions towards mental illness plays an important role towards elevating it to a realm as important as that of physical illness. Even though mental illness is becoming a topic which is less taboo and slowly, ever so slowly, becoming one which those of us fighting the stigma are tirelessly trying to bring to the forefront of societally acceptable topics of conversation, there are still many crossroads to travel.
Admittedly when I was first diagnosed as having bipolar II disorder almost two years ago digesting the reality that I had a mental illness had me constantly swallowing harsh, burning bile. I didn’t even know what bipolar II disorder was. I had heard of manic depression, but even that did not register as an illness that would ever touch my life.
However in the past several months, I’ve become braver, and have in certain situations had to share with family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers that I suffer from mental illness. The reactions have been interesting indeed. To hear from someone that they are diabetic or have arthritis or cancer can garner a variety of reactions, not all of which are warm and fuzzy. There are no perfect replies to these sad announcements. But usually the response will include an “I’m so sorry,” no matter how ‘insert foot in mouth’ the reply may be. There are no guidelines. Usually the person divulging their sad news is not expecting a reaction which will make the pain of their diagnosis less intense.
But confessions of mental illness are rare and infrequent in most people’s lives, and as a result are often met with fear and uncertainty. Below are some of the most common reactions and comments that I get from people when I say I have a mental illness:
• Wide eyed terror
• Wide eyed terror with an attempt to make small talk as a distraction: “So, I think it’s raining outside…”
• Wide eyed terror with an attempt to appear interested but instead demonstrates gross ignorance by asking such questions as, “So, why do you people talk to yourselves in public?”
• Wide eyed terror while searching frantically for nearest escape route
• Wide eyed terror and rushing for nearest escape route
• Wide eyed terror and rushing for nearest escape route but then has to come back because has forgotten something (this is awkward)
• Wide eyed terror and rushing for nearest escape route but has to come back because thinks he/she has forgotten something only to realize that he/she really hasn’t (this is really awkward)
• Is intent on remaining calm but eyes retain a look of wide eyed terror
• Is intent on remaining calm and is successful in regaining composure after a few tries (this is cool)
• Is intent on remaining calm and asks appropriate questions while stuttering slightly, “So how did you know you were bipolar?” (this is very cool)
• Dives right into a discussion and holds nothing back: “Okay, so once you’re diagnosed, then what? Do you have to take a lot of medication? Can you still work?” (this is exceptionally cool)
• And yes, there are those who display a combination of all of the above, and will finally say, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”
Regardless of the reaction however, the point is that the dialogue has begun. Once the words have been uttered, once we have spoken our truth and made our audience aware that we have a mental illness, it can’t be taken back. We cannot unsay those words. Clearly society is not yet ready to accept mental illnesses as ones worth the same conversational consideration as physical illnesses. But the more frequently we find the courage to share and partake some of the knowledge we may have about our mental illness, no matter how insignificant we may feel it is, then perhaps our listeners will also slowly, ever so slowly, begin to accept the importance of its impact.
About Sandra Charron
I'm the mother of four children working as a registered nurse on a postpartum unit. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder two years ago, and in my constant search for information as to how to handle life with this illness, I write whenever and wherever I can in an effort to advocate to end the stigma associated with mental illness. I speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.