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Mental Illness Stigma

Myths and Misunderstandings


Updated May 15, 2014

It's rare to find someone who has a serious mental illness who hasn't come up against mental illness stigma. It may come from ignorance, or it may come from believing the myths surrounding the illness. No matter what the cause, mental illness stigma can cause serious problems.

In 1994, after suffering two serious traumas in about 18 months, I began to come apart at the seams. My job performance was suffering. An assistant supervisor, I was having trouble making decisions. Finally (at least 20 years too late), I was diagnosed with clinical depression and put on medication.

The doctor prescribed a two-week supply of Prozac, requiring a follow-up visit 14 days later to check my tolerance to the drug. On the day of my second appointment I suffered - at work - my one and only panic attack, which the doctor confirmed was a side-effect of Prozac.

Anyone who knew me should have been able to see that my behavior was abnormal - but my boss chose to scream at me (literally) that all I needed to do was pull myself together. Naturally, this only increased my panic. By the time the Prozac started to work, I was on probation and in serious danger of losing my job.

How many of you have suffered from some similar mental illness stigma on the job? While I understand that an employee who is having an acute episode of a form of mental illness is not productive - screaming doesn't help, and when the employee is actively participating in treatment, understanding and patience are essential. (Though amazingly enough, my boss later took credit for my recovery, claiming it was her "kick in the pants" that turned my life around!)

In Mental Illness is No Myth, the authors use the same analogy that my doctor used: that mental illness is as real - and as treatable - as diabetes. Jen Wand, in her Top Ten Myths About Mental Illness (sadly no longer online), got down to the nitty-gritty of just how wrong people can be about mental illnesses with items like: "People who are depressed all of the time need to snap out of it. ...Or get more exercise. Or smile. Or read the Bible. Or just not let it get to them." That reminds me so much of my closed-minded boss I growl a little just reading it.

And this brings up another issue. While I don't want to offend anyone's religious beliefs, no discussion of mental illness stigma would be complete without looking at certain religion-related opinions about mental illness. In The Seven Principalities of Hell, if you search for "Pan", you will find the author blaming all mental illness, and depression by name, on a "Demon of the Mind." Symptoms of Demon Possession (from The Demon Possession Handbook by J.F. Cogan) lists four symptoms which could, depending on interpretation, lead to someone suffering from Bipolar Disorder being labeled as "possessed."

Encountering this kind of belief can be extremely agitating to a Christian holding a more moderate viewpoint or to a non-Christian and would be at least as counterproductive as was my boss's "kick her in the butt" attitude was for me. To someone who belonged to a congregation holding these extreme beliefs, it could be extremely dangerous.

In spite of media trends toward showing the truth about people who have bipolar disorder, mental illness stigma persists and can be very hard to handle. One important thing to remember: never let another person's closed mind or prejudices keep you from pursuing the course of treatment you and your doctor have decided is best for you.


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