A Simple Strategy to Combat Stigma

by Alice Woodrome

I heard it again yesterday. A friend, whose daughter has schizophrenia like mine, told me, "I’m not going to talk about her anymore. People just don’t understand."

Most of us with mentally ill family members know the feeling. We are tired of hearing advice from people who don’t begin to know the situation, people who think that our loved ones are being rebellious, lazy, or that they are lacking in morals.

We’ve been tacitly accused of contributing to the problem by being over protective or indulgent and advised to break off the relationship. Worse yet, we might even be suspected of causing the illness by bad parenting or outright abuse. Some of us have had friends back away when it became known that there was mental illness in our family.

The stigma we feel as parents of a mentally ill person is minor compared to the humiliation our loved ones must endure. They are treated with disdain and too often like lepers. The mentally ill truly become outcasts of society. Their illness and plight is usually ignored until society feels threatened, and then they are blamed and treated like criminals.

Stigma is real. Since it is based on ignorance, we all know education is the answer. Those of us who love someone with a serious mental illness long for the day when the public understands that our loved ones have a biological brain disorder and that no one is to blame for their illness. We pray for a day when those with mental illnesses are embraced by an informed and caring community instead of shunned and ignored. We yearn for a time when mental illness is spoken of in the same way that diabetes is.

We have a long way to go before the stigma of mental illness is erased. And we may feel that there is little one person can do to make a difference. But there is something we can do besides hope and pray. We can talk.

When friends inquire about our family, we can honestly share with them like there was nothing shameful about mental illness. We can call the disease by its first name -- schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. When a co-worker makes an ignorant remark about someone who is mentally ill, we can shed some light on the subject, perhaps using our own experiences as an example. If our tone is not confrontational, we can have a powerful influence on those who are listening

There may be those in the family who will caution us against "airing our dirty laundry in public." If we heed that timeworn counsel, then the truth that is hiding in the closet continues to smell like a "dirty little secret." It will take courage to be so open because we may encounter those who make life more difficult because the truth has been spoken. That is the nature of the beast we are battling. But we may find, as I have, that there are many people with mental illness in the family who are just waiting for someone else to speak first. Our example emboldens them to finally talk openly about their own family’s experience.

We don’t have to make speeches or write articles to effect a change in society. We only need to let a little light into our own closets and, one person at a time, our circle of acquaintances will become educated. All some people know of mental illness is what they see on the news when another "mentally disturbed" individual goes off the deep end with tragic consequences.

But when we have shared our understanding of mental illness and our experiences with our friends, they will begin to understand that such tragedies can be prevented if those suffering with mental illness receive proper and timely treatment. They will know that mental illness can and does happen in normal loving families. They will learn that most mentally ill people are not dangerous and can function well if they get appropriate treatment and are given respect. And we may even catch a glimpse of the world without stigma for which we have been praying. We can make it happen -- one person at a time.