The Mental Illness Stigma: Is it really an Issue?

Being unemployed, I have a lot of time on my hands.  I’m talking about copious amounts of time.  Shortly after losing my job, I got cabin fever.  Between sending out my resume, dropping off my resume and following up with potential employers, I decided everything needed cleaned in the house.  I scrubbed the walls, reorganized and disinfected.  I made a “craft” out of some sticks and an owl vase for God’s sake.  To say the least, I am bored.  When I’m not job hunting, working out, or pursuing my artistic side through writing, drawing or music, I am surfing the web.  And when I surf the web I spend a pretty decent portion of time on the beloved Facebook.

I have noticed a trend on Facebook during my ridiculous amount news feed surfing.  I have seen post after post of people remarking about the stigma of mental illness.  From people taking pictures on instagram with their prescriptions for mental illness to Blogs regarding the mental illness stigma, I have seen it all.  The most recent was regarding the lovely establishment of Target (or as we all know it is pronounced Targèt…with a silent “t” of course).  Some people found it offensive that Target is selling a sweater that defines OCD as Obsessive Christmas Disorder.  While the gesture was meant to be cute and get us all into the Christmas spirit, some decided they wanted to be in the negative Nancy spirit.  You can read more about the terrible sweater here.

In case you are not aware, OCD actually stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  OCD is a mental illness associated with compulsions that the sufferer has to submit to in order to relieve the obsession which they are consumed by.  For example, one may have an unrealistic obsession that their home may be burglarized, therefore they have to constantly check the locks on their doors as the compulsion.  Some obsessions and compulsions are much more…different.  For example, you can read about Ernst Lanzer here, who had an intense obsession that his friend and father would be tortured using a strange, Chinese method involving a rat.  OCD is often associated with other mental illnesses, such as anxiety.

After seeing the horrifically offensive sweater at Target, people hastily took to social media to post about how angry the sweater made them.  I saw an array of posts remarking about the mental illness stigma, which got me thinking…As a person that struggles with mental illness, is this stigma as big of a deal as people are making it out to be?  Time to do some research!

Stigma is usually a word used to imply humiliation or negativity.  People with mental illness often report that they have experienced some sort of stigma based on their mental illness.  So basically, in the words of Vanessa, the stigma of mental illness is any stereotype, negativity or prejudice based on the fact that one is mentally ill.

So is there still stereotyping of the mentally ill?  I needed to have an unbiased answer, so I did some digging.  My research took me back to the 1600’s.  The Salem Witch Trials began in 1692.  Many new theories suggest that the women and girls put to death during these trials were suffering from epilepsy and yes, mental illness.  In the 1700’s, people with mental illnesses were locked in workhouses, prisons and special cells in hospitals.  By the end of the 18th century, special institutions for mentally ill began to develop.  In the 1800’s, asylums became overcrowded and conditions were abysmal for mentally ill patients.  Doctor’s shocked, cut open and experimented on these patients.  In the 1900’s children who were showing signs of mental illness were treated with electric shock.  To come up with a vaccine for hepatitis, mentally ill children were intentionally given the disease.  Other things to take place in the 1900’s were infecting the mentally ill with malaria, insulin induced comas, more shocking of the brain and lobotomies.

But what about now?  As a person who has dealt with depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive habits and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I have never had my brain shocked to the point of convulsions.  I have never had a piece of my brain surgically removed.  I have never been given malaria, hepatitis or an insulin induced coma.  I’ve never been confined in unlivable conditions based on my mental health.  So how do we experience discrimination in 2015?

I do have to say, though I haven’t been horribly treated due to my mental illness, I have been treated differently.  I have had people ask me why I can’t seem to get out of bed and shower, when other people have it so much worse.  I have had people tell me that my obsessions and compulsions are for attention.  I have had people tell me to “just calm down” from my anxiety.  And when I try to talk about my PTSD, I’ve had people tell me “oh well, it’s in the past now.”  But this isn’t their fault.  If you don’t have a mental illness, you don’t always know how to handle people that do.  Just like if you’ve never had cancer, you don’t always know what to say when you find out a loved one has been diagnosed.

So what do we do about this?  Mentally ill people are often believed to be violent, or criminals, or the type of mentally ill portrayed on television.  I have to admit, even one of my favourite TV shows, “Criminal Minds” is all about criminals and mental illnesses associated with certain violent crimes.  Obviously, that is just a television show and the entire premise of the show is based on mentally ill criminals.  It is by no means saying that all criminals, or even most criminals, are mentally ill.   But to those watching that are not aware, they may assume that all violent people are mentally ill.  But the truth is, the mentally ill are eight times more likely to be robbed, 15 times more likely to be assaulted, and 23 times more likely to be victims of rape.  Why?  Perhaps one of the reasons is they are considered easier targets.  In fact, I was told by my ex, I was not allowed to tell anyone he did anything to me because I had depression and no one would believe me.  95 per cent of homicides are committed by people not diagnosed with a mental health problem, such as schizophrenia.  To help put this into perspective, you have a one in 88 chance of being killed in a car accident.  You have a one in 14,300,000 chance of being killed by a stranger with schizophrenia.  People with mental illnesses are not as scary as they are made out to be and there are more of us out there than you realize.  Mental illnesses make up about 13 per cent of the world’s disease burden.  That is higher than heart disease and cancer.  So if you have a loved one with a heart problem, or cancer, you probably know someone with a mental illness too.  In the United States, people with mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than those without.  60 per cent of mentally ill adults that are willing and able to work cannot find jobs, as apposed to only 20 per cent of those willing and able to work that are not mentally ill.

It is time to end the mental illness stigma.  If you learn someone you love has been diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia an anxiety disorder, or any other mental illness, do your research.  Even if you don’t know anyone, you should still do your research.  Educate yourselves on the matter of mental illness.  Learn what is inappropriate to say to someone with a mental illness and what is actually helpful.  Because let’s face it, no one with a mental illness wants to hear “everyone get’s  a little down in the dumps,” or “why don’t you just get over it.”








The Mental Illness Stigma: Is it really an Issue?

What Life Taught me Before my 24th Birthday

As children, we are given a certain ideal of what our lives should look like.  By high school, we should be mini, well-rounded humans that have a set list of hobbies, likes, dislikes and even a list of things we want to be when we grow up.  By the age of 18, we should graduate high school, have our career path picked out and be heading to some sort of college or vocational school.  By 22, we should graduate college, get on our feet and be hired into our career for the rest of our lives.  By 25, we should be married.  By 30, we should be popping out (or making) babies…and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, for many of us, life does not happen this way; and we are made to feel like failures if life doesn’t happen by this cookie-cutter standard.  My life started out on the “right path” but somewhere along the way I am staring in the face of the age of 24, and I have nothing to show for it.

In high school, I was a singer and I played piano.  I loved being in theatre, I loved writing and poetry and I loved my anatomy and physiology class.  I loved it so much that I wanted to go to school to major in biology and be a coroner.  I was the co-captain of my dance team and won over 17 first and second place trophies in dance.  I graduated at 17 and was headed to the prestige, Westminster College in Pennsylvania that only accepted a certain number of Biology students per year.  Biology class wasn’t easy for me.  In fact, I hated it.  My right-brained mind hated that everything had one right answer and one wrong answer.  I wanted to dream, to create and to perform.  Fast Forward to my second year of college.  I could no longer afford the 40,000 dollar a year private school, so I transferred to Kent State University in Ohio.  I decided to major in music education.  Their music school, The Hugh A Glauser school of music was a top music school in the area.

It turns out music was my passion, but it still was far from easy for me.  I was not proficient in reading music when I first started, I had no experience with music theory and I was playing catch up all the time.  I was a joke at the school to a lot of people.  My teachers even told me that I should “consider other career options.”  Four years of college and I suddenly was out loans to borrow and financial aid to struggle with.  I was one year away from a Bachelor’s Degree in music and I had to drop out of school to work a minimum wage job as a receptionist for a salon.

I got married…and divorced.  But at least I always had my job and my friends that I worked with to help me through the hard times in my life.  They knew about my depression, my anxiety, my painful marriage, but they stilled cared for me and always had my back.

…Until one day, when they didn’t.  I lost my job and found myself at a loss.  Here I am, writing this blog a week after losing my job and all I can think about is how much of a failure I am.  I didn’t graduate, I don’t have a career, I’m in debt, I’m poor, my marriage was a disaster and I have no idea what I am going to do for the rest of my life.  But there are a few things that being in my mid-twenties and confused has taught me.

1.  It is okay to not be a college graduate:  Most people don’t graduate within the 4 year plan.  Some even wait to return to school years later.  Some never return, because they find happiness in life that doesn’t stem from a degree, but rather the love, support and happiness they find in their loved ones and in a fulfilling life.  I don’t know if I will go back to school yet, but I do know that my happiness does not depend on a piece of paper.

2.  It is okay to not be perfect at everything:  Since I was five, if I wasn’t perfect at something, I would get frustrated.  I quit so many things because it was easier than admitting that I wasn’t the best at it.  I strive for perfection and when I am not perfect, ensue mental breakdown.  It is okay that I wasn’t the best musician in college.  It is okay that I am not the best in my yoga class.  It is okay if my boyfriend’s mom is a better cook than me.  It is okay if I go through my entire life being average at everything I do, because there is still no one else like me in the universe.  I am best at being Vanessa, and I am coming to terms with that.

3.  It is okay to lose a job:  I didn’t set out to lose my job that morning.  It was not my intention for whatever happened to happen that caused my employer to decide that they no longer needed me.  The perfectionist in me has applied for nearly 15 jobs in a week’s time and is telling me that I need to find a new job ASAP because I have to be able to pay my bills and stay on my feet.  But, sometimes stuff just happens.  It is okay that the universe picked me for said stuff to happen to.  I will be okay.

4.  It is okay to be in your mid-twenties and not know what you want out of life:  I like being a receptionist and I wouldn’t mind being a receptionist forever as my career choice.  But that’s not to say that I HAVE to make a decision and that is the ONLY decision I’m allowed to have for the rest of my entire existence.

5.  It is okay to know what you want out of life:  While I may not know exactly where I will be working in the next ten years, I do know what I want in other aspects of my life.  I know I want to get married again someday, I know I want a kid, I know I want a house and it is absolutely okay that I know what I want.

6.  It is okay if your career and your passion are not the same thing:  Being a musician, it is kind of hard for me to have my career and my passion be the same thing.  Yes, I teach lessons, and that can be a source of income, but it is not enough to make a living.  It is absolutely okay for your career to be something you like that pays the bills and your passion to be something else like singing, art and *ahem* blogging.

Am I having a quarter life crisis?  Being the obsessive compulsive, neurotic, freak that I am, it is quite possible.  Do I look at my accomplishments so far and get a little depressed?  Absolutely.  I wanted to be so many things, and now I am nothing.  I sit alone all day and apply for countless jobs.  I have no one who needs me and I have a desperate desire to be needed.  But it is okay.  It is okay that all I do is job hunt, clean and work out.  It is okay that sometimes I take naps because life has got me down.  It is okay if I don’t wash my hair or wear the same shirt for a couple days, because I am allowed to be confused and sad.  But most importantly, I am allowed to use this time to find myself and learn who I am as a person.  I needed a vacation anyway.

What Life Taught me Before my 24th Birthday