Mental illness self-stigma is essential to recognize. Stigma is a very popular word in mental health advocacy circles. People talk nonstop about the effects of stigma, stigma, stigma. However, self-stigma gets somewhat less press. I don’t know if that’s because it’s people with mental illness talking to other people with mental illness about self-stigma (as opposed to advocates who may or may not have an illness) or because people just don’t like to cop to perceived weakness, but self-stigma is real, harmful, and something we ought to be talking about.
Mental Illness Stigma
According to Dictionary.com, stigma is defined as:
“a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.”
So, when people talk about mental illness stigma, what they mean is the notion that having a mental illness is somehow disgraceful. This, of course, is just an idea; it’s no more true than the idea that people with bipolar disorder are geniuses.
That said, mental illness stigma is pretty prolific in Western society. Much of this is leftover history from when people with mental illnesses were hidden away and put in insane asylums.
It’s also another example of “othering.” It’s an “us-vs-them” mentality. By nature, humans categorize stimuli in their environment, so it’s natural to put unusual people (say, those with mental illnesses) into their own category — the “others.” And then, because we tend to be scared of what we don’t understand, we treat that category as a threat and “them.” (This is part of what leads to the “othering” of people with other differences too.)
Finally, mental illnesses are, well, illnesses. So, naturally, people tend to want to dissociate from those who are sick lest they, themselves, become sick. Yes, of course, mental illness is not in any way contagious, but we’re talking about the reptilian brain here. It’s working to protect us, even against logic.
Mental Illness Stigma’s Relationship to Self-Stigma
People with mental illness live in the same society as everyone else, and just like everyone else, they are exposed to messages of mental illness stigma. So, when you average person becomes scared of a person with schizophrenia due to horrendous media messaging, for example, the person with schizophrenia gets the same messages and is subject to the same feelings. True, the person with schizophrenia should know that the messages are inaccurate, but when you hear a falsehood repeatedly, it sure starts to sound true. When a person starts to believe they are scary because of an illness, that’s self-stigma.
Take another example. People with bipolar disorder are often depicted as dangerous, with uncontrollable behavior. We are considered to be toxic in relationships. And while people without bipolar disorder are often given this message and believe it because they don’t know better, it’s actually pretty normal for some people with bipolar disorder to internalize that message too. Again, if you hear over and over that because of an illness, you’re toxic, you may start to believe it. Again, this is self-stigma.
The development of mental illness self-stigma in this way is so common and normal. You’re fighting the view of a whole society. Of course, that influences your own view of yourself.
Self-Stigma from Other Factors
While I think most self-stigma comes from the above, I think mental illness self-stigma can be created internally too. Just because we are sick, we may also feel broken and like an “other” no matter how fairly people treat us. This is perfectly normal. It’s tough to integrate the reality of a sick brain into any type of semi-normal life. Acceptance of mental illness is a process, and self-stigma can be pretty prevalent before acceptance is achieved.
And let’s not forget many people experience depression, and depression wants you to hate yourself. It wants you to buy into self-stigma.
Mental Illness Self-Stigma Is Prevalent and Pernicious
I have experienced mental illness self-stigma. It wasn’t as clear-cut as the above examples, but I certainly have felt lesser-than because of bipolar disorder. I have felt the “disgrace” of having a mental illness — no matter how much that disgrace isn’t real. And that’s me, mental-health-advocate-me, mental-illness-researcher-me. If anyone in the world can tell you about mental illness — that it’s a brain illness and in no way the fault of the sufferer, that mental illness does not, de facto, equal dangerous, that people with mental illness can be in happy relationships — it’s me. I can recite chapter and verse about mental illness, and yet I have fallen victim to self-stigma.
And I have found that even seeing self-stigma in myself doesn’t mean I can easily root it out. Self-stigma takes hold, and it’s difficult to get rid of even with a more honest and enlightened viewpoint.
Fighting Mental Illness Self-Stigma
As I said, self-stigma is real, common, and normal. It also can be hard to deal with in all its manifestation. That said, it’s worth fighting to get your self-worth back.
To fight mental illness self-stigma, try this:
- Look inward for evidence of self-stigma. Look for beliefs around mental illness that are negative. Look for beliefs that you know are false but feel real. Look for ways you feel bad about yourself because of your mental illness. Examples include things like, “I’m unloveable because of my mental illness,” “I can’t make friends because of my mental illness,” ” I can’t keep a job because of having a mental illness,” and so on.
- Write down evidence of your mental illness self-stigma. Writing down these thoughts and seeing them in black and white often makes it clear how false they are.
- Write a counterthought for each one. Write down something you can say to yourself to fight that narrative of each statement of self-stigma. For example, “I am a loveable human being. Mental illness doesn’t change my inherent loveability,” “Making friends is difficult for me, but it’s impossible. My mental illness doesn’t make me a bad friend,” “I have a hard time keeping a job because I am sick, but I know with the right job and right accommodations, I can be a good employee,” and so on. It’s not about being fake or stating blanket affirmations, it’s about acknowledging how mental illness affects you while being clear that it doesn’t define you in your totality.
- Practice saying your counterthoughts to yourself when things are good. You might find it hard to believe your counterthoughts at first. Practice saying them to yourself when you’re in a good place to start believing them.
- Repeat your counterthoughts each time you have a thought of self-stigma. This is the tricky part. You need your counterthoughts when your self-stigma arises. That’s the hardest time to remember your counterthoughts, however. That’s why practice matters. You may wish to carry a written list of your counterthoughts to help.
- Talk back to stigma wherever you see it. If you feel like you can, talk back to people who make discriminatory remarks in front of you. Think of it as your way of educating others. They may simply not know any better.
And finally, give yourself a break when you fall a bit short. Fighting mental illness self-stigma can be difficult, and you won’t be able to do it all the time. That’s okay. You’ll have another chance in the future.
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