Eradicating the Stigma of Mental Illness
Patti Jacobs Hein, MA, LPC
I’ve lived most of my adult life with the multi-layered burden of having two chronic mental illnesses. I used to think of this as a big secret. Now, I enjoy witnessing the expressions puzzled surprise leap into the faces of the people I tell. Their eyes ask me, “How could you have a mental illness? You look so normal. Aren’t mental illnesses only found in those weak-of-character? How can a successful, professional, educated woman be mentally ill?” Fair question. Under the right circumstances of just enough life stress, inadequate coping skills, and heredity, my brain was able to trigger the chemical imbalance that allowed my body to express intense angst and overwhelming despair out-of-context, disproportionate to the actual events of my daily life.
However, does it really matter how I became ill or which illnesses I have? Is it even significant that I have any mental illness? How come we are not as accepting of mental illnesses (and those who have them) as we are of other medical conditions? We have been educated through research, self-help books, film, news stories, and even medication advertising. We have heard testimonials from successful, and usually famous, people who have survived the impact of these illnesses on their lives. Yet, the stigma remains. What is left to do to destroy this attitude of shame?
My bias is that we need to talk about mental illness around the dinner table, over the backyard fence, at the water cooler, and anywhere else the topic may arise. We need to talk about mental illness in normal tones, rather than furtive whispers. We need to talk as if there is no shame in mental illness, because there is no shame in mental illness. We need to talk of mental illness as if it were a physical, medical condition, because it is. Mental illnesses are best described as neurobiological disorders, so let’s refer to them as such.
I rely on medications to balance my brain chemistry so that I can continue to be a productive, satisfied person. I imagine that a person with diabetes or high blood pressure feels similarly about his or her medications. Likewise, I imagine the person who has bronchitis, influenza, or even a headache would want to regain normalcy and health through some therapeutic intervention. Yet, we continue to view people who have mental illnesses as things to be avoided and ashamed of, rather than as people who are simply ill.
Yes, I live with the burden and multi-layered blessing of having two neurobiological disorders. Perhaps the incredulity in others’ response to my perspective of “blessing” only underscores the depth of stigma. Think about the best way humans learn significant life lessons. Through suffering and struggle we discover our strongest attributes, our greatest gifts. The gifts I have received far outweigh the pain I endured. I learned to access my best self to overpower the obstacles in my path. This required my courage and determination, and I created my own success. Now, I tell my “non-secret” in hopes of eradicating stigma. I tell to liberate voices, to open eyes, to free experiences, and to encourage bravery in seeking needed treatment.
Join me by accepting this challenge. Defy convention. Ask questions. Confront others’ attitudes. With courage and determination, anything is possible. I know this from experience.
Author’s Note: This article was originally written in 2001. Since that time my illness devolved into a more severe form in 2005. Then, through experiences that can only be explained (in my opinion) as a miracle, I was able to successfully titrate off all psychotropic medications in 2009. This success is significant in that I had tried several times over the previous 20 years to get off medications, only to experience more severe symptoms. I had finally gotten to a place of acceptance regarding my need for medications and a place of confidence-without-shame in accepting this reality, when my physician advised that I was “ready” to try one more time. I have been medication-free and symptom-free since October 2009. I share this final detail to offer hope to all who struggle: surviving is possible, recovery is possible, and thriving is within reach.
Jacobs Hein, MA, LPC, is President & Professional Counselor for Thresholds, P.C. in Denver, Colorado