Break the Stigma

Stigma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
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Facing stigma surrounding mental illness is often harder than coping with the symptoms of the actual disorder. Mental health is talked about more and more, but always in a way that makes mental health seem cheery, happy and easy to keep balanced. It's rare that I have come across a post that is real and deals with the really dark side of mental health. 

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The things I have seen are either, "you got this", "take time for self care", "breathe and let go" [all excellent advice] or the exact opposite- poems from ATTICUS and rupi kaur [which, do not get me wrong, are amazing]. Either cheery things or dark self loathing things. To me, the lack of the middle is why the stigmas facing mental illness is so strong and seemingly growing in strength. 

There are two kinds of stigmas. Public stigma [reaction that the general population has to people with mental illness] and self stigma [prejudice which people with mental illness turn against themselves]. Within those two type are 3 types of stigmas as well. The information below I found at The National Center for Biotechnology Information.


Public stigma

Stereotype- Negative belief about a group (e.g., dangerousness, incompetence, character weakness)

Prejudice- Agreement with belief and/or negative emotional reaction (e.g., anger, fear)

Discrimination- Behavior response to prejudice (e.g., avoidance, withhold employment and housing opportunities, withhold help)

Self-stigma

Stereotype- Negative belief about the self (e.g., character weakness, incompetence)

Prejudice- Agreement with belief, negative emotional reaction (e.g., low self-esteem, low self-efficacy)

Discrimination- Behavior response to prejudice (e.g., fails to pursue work and housing opportunities)


So what are the stigmas of different disorders and why are they untrue? How can we prevent them from gaining traction and spreading like wildfire?

I'm going to try to list the stigma's I have come across for different mental health disorders. Feel free to add to the comments below of other's your come across and why they are untrue. 

Bipolar Disorder

Stigmas- We are just moody. We are violent. We are unpredictable. We are out of control. 

Truth- Bipolar disorder isn't just moods. It is energy levels, appetite and sleeping patterns. For me personally, my disorder is mainly energy fluctuations and appetite. I am not violent. Sure if I'm hypomanic I can get agitated quickly, but I am not violent and have never had violent tendencies. My swings are not unpredictable. Many people with bipolar disorder can sense their shifts changing, or we have distinct triggers that we know will start a shift. We are not out of control. In fact, most of us have worked our asses off to learn methods of coping to control ourselves. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Stigmas- We are all germphobic. We need everything to be perfect. Stress is our cause of OCD. All "neat freaks" have OCD.

Truth- OCD isn't about cleanliness. It's having a thought or belief so strong (obsession) it results in an action that is done to prevent/ensure/stop the thought or belief from happening (compulsion). Not all people with OCD need perfection. Not all compulsions are physical. Compulsions can be as simple as having to repeat sayings and words. It may have nothing to do with orderliness and cleanliness. OCD is rooting in uncontrollable fears and anxiety- not stress. So "fixing" OCD is not as simple as "just relaxing". Stress may exacerbate the anxiety and fear, but it is not the root cause. Just because someone is a "neat freak" or even someone that gets annoyed by things that are out of place, does not mean they have OCD. Anyone with true OCD knows how hurtful making light of the condition can be. OCD can be life altering. 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Stigmas- We are weak. We should be able to just "get over it" with enough time. We are dangerous. Only military veterans can have PTSD. 

Truth- We are not weak. Yes, two people can experience the same event, and one walk away with PTSD and the other go on about life perfectly fine. It's not because of weakness that this occurs. Everyone's body handles stress of traumatic events differently. Some brains send out more or less or different hormones and chemicals to deal and cope with stress. Past traumas and experiences can affect how the brain processes this event as well. Personality traits also play a role. It isn't a matter of strength. Yes, it is possible to treat PTSD and all but eliminate the symptoms, it is not as easy as just giving it enough time. It takes a lot of work, talk therapy and exposure therapy to really make a difference. A lot of these things are unaffordable and not an option for those diagnosed. PTSD is not characterized by violence or psychosis. This stigma has made a popular run with shows and even news outlets depicting the "crazy war veteran". Most PSTD symptoms revolve around changes in mood and anxiety attacks revolving around distressing memories. Most of the coverage on PTSD revolves around our war vets, anyone that experiences a traumatic event can be susceptible to this disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Mental Disorders. the criteria for what constitutes a traumatic event include: (1) “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence,” and (2) directly experiencing the event, witnessing it in person, or being indirectly exposed to the event.

Social Phobia

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Stigmas- We are just shy. We are introverts. We don't have friends. We don't leave the house.

Truth- While yes, to others the person not talking to others may seem shy or reserved or quiet, it is usually not the case. We want to interact with others. We want to be able to feel like we can carry on a conversation with another person. Our minds or literally in flight or fight mode because it perceives the situation as dangerous. We become paralyzed. Being an extrovert, an introvert or anywhere in-between has next to nothing to do with social phobia. I am an extrovert at heart- having an intense desire and need for social interaction, but that doesn't discount my body's response to these situations. Those of us with social phobia do have friends. We may interact with them differently, or not as often as someone without the phobia, but we need that support group just as much as anyone else. Most of us have worked our asses off to find ways to overcome the phobia so that we can function normally outside of our home. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, students, teachers, etc. We have to leave. We have things to do during the week. Yes, it is harder for us, and it is physically and mentally draining for us to do these things, but we still do. 

General Anxiety Disorder

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Stigmas- We just worry too much. We can just snap out of it if we really tried. It will go away once we remove the stress causing it. 

Truth- There is more to anxiety than just worrying. Without experiencing it first hand it is hard to explain, but having general anxiety disorder is essentially having this omnipresent thought and energy over your entire day. The overwhelming fear that things are not right is never ceasing. While, yes it sounds so simple to just 'stop thinking about it', we just can't. Anxiety disorder can result in nightmares, panic attacks and general feeling of malice. Treatment (whether medication or therapy) is really the only way to help us find ways to function at a normal level. Anxiety isn't always cause by stress. Stress with exacerbate the symptoms, but is not always the root cause. If we try to treat ourselves gingerly and avoid things that are going to make our anxiety worse, we end up reinforcing it and demoralizing ourselves. To overcome anxiety you need to experience it. We can function in situations even if we are anxious. 

Depression

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Stigmas-We are lazy. We are seeking attention. We are selfish. 'Real men' don't get depressed. It's all in our head. 

Truth- We are far from lazy. We are not using depression as an excuse to lay in bed and miss work. On these days we feel worthless. We feel glued to the bed because getting up means we are taking up space we don't deserve to inhabit. We want to get up, we want to be "normal". We aren't seeking attention for the sake of feeling validated. People mistake 'attention seeking' for 'desperate'. Honestly, depression is not an attention seeking act. It's a disorder. It's not a weakness, or a failure, and if we are brave enough to admit to someone that we feel this way, it's an act of bravery not an act of desperation. Whether it's a mental or physical illness, when you are hurting, you want to know that people are out there that care. That's really the only attention we want. Depression can force us to be preoccupied with the constant thoughts in our head. This can prevent us from really listening and connection with others. On the outside it looks as if we are just involved with ourselves without care for others. The term 'selfish' implies we are acting this way on purpose, with intention. Really, this inward focus is our response to pain. Men may be statistically less likely to have depression, but that does not mean they do not get it. In fact, because of societies view of what a 'real man' is, they are more likely to forgo seeking help, not wanting to seem less masculine or as strong or as stable as a 'man' needs to be. Men tend to display symptoms differently as well, so what may look like depression in woman, is not always the case for men. Depression can manifest itself in more ways than just emotion. We are fatigued, can't sleep, don't eat, over eat, have bodily aches and chest pains. It's not just the thoughts in our heads. It physically hurts. 

Panic Disorder

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Stigmas- We are just overreacting to stress. Deep breaths will stop a panic attack. We can just avoid what causes the episodes.

Truth- A panic attack is an actual physiological response. Our body's fight or flight response is triggered and the episode can last from moments to ten minutes. We feel like we are in danger and we work to avoid the situation at all costs. If we are in the middle of a panic attack, deep breathes can actually make the problem worse. By inhaling deeply (in an already hyperventilated state), it requires your body to release extra carbon dioxide. This can actually increase the symptoms of dizziness and numbness. This then leads to more deep breathing because you feel like you are suffocating. The best help is to take short, shallow breaths. Assuming we know what triggers our episodes (which is not always the case), avoiding the triggers can actually be worse. When we do this, we start restricting our lives. At first we may avoid things to find our baseline of comfortableness, but then we would start to expose ourselves to triggers slowly so that we can overcome them. 

Erin Berry1 Comment