One of the main reasons I wanted to write this blog was because I feel that part of my purpose and obligation is to be able to illustrate that people can, and do, live well with mental illness. I also strongly believe that much of the stigma associated with mental illness is related to a lack of understanding rather than malice. We are often afraid of what we do not know and we act out of that fear often through avoidance or shunning. How many years did people refer to ‘the big C’ in a whisper? Now, we run for cancer research and wear pink ribbons in support of those with cancer whom we love and support. I know that this is possible for mental illness and addictions as well.
Growing up, my concern about what others thought about me was a significant block to being authentically me and I know that my self-stigma about mental illness was a barrier to my acceptance of depression and anxiety as an ongoing life challenge. As I delved into my own illness, I also came to realize that I had a deeply held belief that I should be able to handle all life’s difficulties on my own. Add to this the genetic susceptibility, environmental factors, life stressors, and a dash of chemical imbalance, and ta-dah, I had the perfect combination where my mental illness flourished. Each time I had an episode, I made sure no one knew that it was related to my mental health. Every time I recovered, I convinced myself that I didn’t really have a mental illness, just a challenging time in my life that was over and done.
Unfortunately, I am not alone in my difficulty in getting past the stigma associated with mental illness in order to get the treatment and support I needed. Research indicates that stigma is the single most significant barrier to people seeking treatment for mental health problems1. Worse still, stigma is incredibly hard to eliminate. Once I accepted my illness as part of my life, I wanted to try to support others in their struggles, but I wondered how one person could make a difference. I did a little research on stigma and mental illness to find out how best to approach what seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. According to studies, the best approach to stigma reduction suggests focusing on personal contact, education, and empowerment2. In fact, promoting personal contact with people with mental health challenges is the most important factor for positively changing attitudes and behaviours towards people living with mental illness (Pinfold et al., 2005). More specifically, personal stories that reduce fear, ignorance and prejudice in a setting that supports reflection and discussion is the most effective method.
And so, I began telling my story – putting a face and a name to what mental illness and addiction looks like. I am far from perfect, but here are a few things that I am not: crazy, unintelligent, of flawed character, violent, lazy, unreliable, unemployable or dangerous. When I am unwell, I need medical treatment just as someone who has a physical illness does. I can no more ‘snap out of it’ than someone with diabetes can concentrate a little harder and create insulin. I have episodes when I am ill, but treatment is effective and recovery is possible.
I am confident that the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction will be eliminated. We only need to look as far as Clara Hughes whose Big Ride is using her story to raise awareness and open the dialogue about mental health problems. When I talk about my journey, I often have people who say to me with surprise: “You don’t look like a depressed person.” With a smile I respond: “I’m not a depressed person; I am a happy person with a depressive disorder.” It is a little thing, but each time I see that person nod in quiet understanding I know I have made a small, positive difference. And I am both grateful and heartened in my life’s purpose: changing the world one attitude at a time.
1MacDonald, Gayle. 2014.Stigma remains key barrier to treating mental health. The Globe & Mail. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
2Hawke, Parikh, Michalak. 2012. Reducing Stigma Toward People with Bipolar Disorder, One Step at a Time. A review of the literature. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.