Surviving stigma intact

–noun, plural stig·ma·ta  /ˈstɪgmətə, stɪgˈmɑtə, -ˈmætə/ [stig-muh-tuh, stig-mah-tuh, -mat-uh] stig·mas.
1. a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.
2. Medicine/Medical .
a. a mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease: the stigmata of leprosy.
b. a place or point on the skin that bleeds during certain mental states, as in hysteria.
3. Zoology .
a. a small mark, spot, or pore on an animal or organ.
b. the eyespot of a protozoan.
c. an entrance into the respiratory system of insects.
4. Botany . the part of a pistil that receives the pollen.
5. stigmata, marks resembling the wounds of the crucified body of Christ, said to be supernaturally impressed on the bodies of certain persons, esp. nuns, tertiaries, and monastics.
6. Archaic . a mark made by a branding iron on the skin of a criminal or slave.

Stigma is an ugly word, with an uglier history. I don’t think there’s a single person out there with a mental illness who hasn’t suffered some stigma for it.  Stigma is what happens when there’s a sensational headline about someone murdering someone else, and they happened to have a diagnosis or medications in their home.  It’s what leads to people with mental illnesses having to hide their struggles from the world so they aren’t cast out.  It’s what leads to cries for a national database on the mentally ill, to violate the HIPAA rights of millions of Americans, what leads to China forbidding the mentally ill to be anywhere near the Olympics. It leads to misunderstanding about mental illness, or utter lack of education. It leads to people thinking schizophrenia is multiple personalities and that people with mental illness kill indiscriminately. Even as a case manager working with the mentally ill, I run into stigma within the medical community from time to time.

Most of what I see is what happens to my clients. With a caseload of 20 and an agency that serves nearly a thousand individuals in our community, it’s inevitable. My clients are very severely ill and easily taken advantage of as a result. I’ve heard the whole gamut. A large body of scientific study has shown that the mentally ill are not the cold-blooded killers they’re made out to be; most of this is prejudice and stereotyping, and violence is rarely associated with mental illness unless there is comorbid substance abuse. (I just ran a quick search on Google Scholar and came up with about 1,480,000 articles when I entered in “mental illness and violence.” There’s a lot of good abstracts and articles there.)

What hurts the worst, though, is being affected by stigma personally. A few times in college I took a bus trip halfway across the country, and you encounter a lot of interesting people on the Greyhound. Being young and naive, when someone asked me about the medicine I was fishing out of my bag, I explained my condition and was treated terribly by a drunk guy on the bus for being “one of those crazy bipolar bitches.” Not long after, I was thrown out of the education department at my school by the professor that had questioned me about my constant yawning. He cited that I was a danger to the classroom because “bipolar people kill kids.” I ended up being put on academic probation, banned from taking education classes until I proved I was “stable.” I did everything they asked, but the stress of the situation and my being forced to take too many classes that semester so as not to lose my scholarship led me to being hospitalized the week before my 21st birthday. Needless to say, I was not allowed back into the education program, but my hospitalization led me to realize I really liked psychology, and I switched majors. (That semester and the following year are referred to by my roommate as “the year Nadja hated everything.” I was a bit… bitter, for lack of a better word. Still am. I don’t know why I didn’t sue, but I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.) Some of the worst stigma I’ve experienced happened at the hands of the church.

From my LiveJournal, August 10, 2009:

Writer’s block: If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Please punch the next person that tries to anoint you with oil and pray over you that God will heal you, and/or that if you’d have more faith that he will heal you. Demand to know the quantifiable amount of faith that is the prerequisite. Ask why they don’t pray that prayer over amputees. SOMETHING. Don’t let them tell you you’re only sick because you don’t have enough faith! Don’t accept that as an answer! It isn’t. It’s a sick, twisted platitude that will only lead to more suffering and pain down the road. Don’t accept that you’re sick so other people can appreciate their health. That’s even worse. If you can, walk away from the church sooner than I did.

I am not ashamed of my illness, because mental illness is no different from any other illness. It is not a moral failing. I am not a bad person because I have a mental illness, and I’m not automatically going to be a murderer because of it. I am not possessed by evil spirits or the devil. I don’t need to “just have more faith and God will heal me” or anointed with oil or any other religious ritual. I just need to take care of myself, and all will be well, for the most part. When I hear misconceptions, I will do my part to educate those around me. When I am a victim of stigma, I will not allow myself to be victimized. It’s all I can do. Have you ever experienced stigma? What do you do to combat it? How has it made you stronger?


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