Speaking Up Against the Hierarchy of Mental Illness Taboos
There’s a moment I think back to often from my senior year of college. Before the start of a meeting, I noticed my friends were visibly upset about some of the outrageous things a mutual friend with bipolar disorder (who we’ll call Alex) had been saying to them. Alex was not present at the meeting, but I spoke up in support. “Alex is manic,” I explained. “I talked to her roommate yesterday.” Another friend (who we’ll call Sean) responded by comparing Alex’s experiences to his struggles with depression and anxiety. Sean felt we were offering Alex a free pass because of her mental illness and that it wasn’t fair. I did not engage with Sean, but since that moment, I’ve thought a lot about how problematic it was for him to equate his experiences to Alex’s. Maybe I wasn’t removed enough from the situation because of my own struggles with mania, but where was Sean’s compassion?
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I burned a lot of bridges while under extreme emotional distress, and many of those relationships I was never able to mend. I learned the hard way that no one is required to forgive you. Let me be clear: I do believe that as human beings, we are responsible for ourselves and our actions. But I do think there is something to be said about the lack of empathy our society has for mental illnesses that are less common and therefore, less understood. Anxiety disorders are present in 19.1% of the population, and 31% of people in the U.S. experience anxiety sometime in their life, according to the National Institution of Mental Health. Major depression affects a smaller number of people, 7%. Bipolar disorder is much less common, affecting only 1% of the population, and schizophrenia only exists in less than .64% of people.
There should be no hierarchy when it comes to experiences of mental illnesses. Any attack on your body perpetuated by your own mind is painful and can be extremely traumatizing. But some mental illnesses are certainly still more stigmatized than others. For instance, I have noticed that talking about anxiety and depression is becoming less taboo. What concerns me is that some of us who struggle with other symptoms of mental illness like psychosis, hallucinations, mania, or mood disorders, are often perceived as less relatable, so finding empathy from others proves to be more difficult.
Part of eliminating the stigma is recognizing how our language perpetuates stigma. It’s not okay to call someone “psycho,” for example, or to use the word “bipolar” so loosely. Those words have meaning, and by using them out of context, their impact weakens. Combatting ableist language plays a big part in uplifting us. If you choose otherwise, you trivialize our experiences.
It’s definitely a positive thing that I’ve seen more and more people having conversations about mental illness, especially since 1 in 5 adults experiences some form of mental illness. But the work doesn’t stop when we reach mental illnesses that you don’t know how to relate to or you don’t understand. The first step to change this is to listen to people with mental illness, and not to the demonized versions we see in the media. There are plenty of people who experience personality and mood disorders who are willing to talk about and produce content about their experiences (but keep in mind, not all of us are). Seek out books, articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos that reflect not the Hollywood version of mental illness, but real people.
My voice and my story matter. My struggles with mental illness cannot be pushed to the side. I want to put a little good out into the world, to have my experiences listened to, and to be loved.
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