The Feeling of Stigma
by See Change Ambassador, Linda Garvin
Stigma comes in lots of forms, from many places. Stigma eats away at you from the outside world and from what you tell yourself. Your self-esteem and self-worth are wiped out. For me, overcoming stigma was often harder than overcoming my mental health illness. For those of you who struggled with feeling socially isolated over the last 6 months during the COVID pandemic, stigma creates a permanent place of social isolation for many people with mental health difficulties.
What stigma sounds like
While I work tremendously hard to ensure I am physically and mentally well, I cannot control depression. Depression is an illness, not a choice. Most other illness and disabilities are not dismissed or ridiculed the way mental illness is. A person with asthma isn’t told to breathe better. A person with hearing difficulties isn’t told to listen harder.
I have experienced the cruel, in your face type of stigma from people I thought would support me the most with comments like:
“I don’t want to talk about how you feel in case I end up messed up in the head like you”
“You are starting to lose touch with reality”
“I didn’t cause your illness so why should I do anything for you”
I have experienced the more common form of stigma.
“Snap out of it”
“Suck it up and you’ll be fine”
“What have you got to be sad about?”
“You look fine to me”
I have also experienced the more subtle, almost silent forms of stigma, with people becoming more difficult to reach and non-returned calls.
What stigma feels like
Experiencing depression, anxiety and panic disorder was extremely hard and often debilitating. But, Stigma hurt just as much. For me, stigma brought feelings of shame and isolation. I felt worthless, embarrassed, humiliated, belittled, afraid, invisible, alone and broken.
Depression never made me lie, but stigma did!
Like when I lied about why I couldn’t make it out to dinner with friends saying I had a migraine, when I was really struggling not to cry.
When I repeatedly said “I’m fine”, “Not too bad”, “Just stayed up too late last night” or “Just really busy at work” when someone asked me how I have been or mentioned that I looked tired.
When I struggled, filling out so many application forms for various things and I reached the question about my medical history or current medication. I wanted to be honest but knew I would be penalized for it.
Stigma and the fear of being judged as “less than” prevents so many people talking about how they really feel. It stops people asking for help. It stands in the way of receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Stigma decreases the possibility of someone being employed or being promoted. It can make finding somewhere to live much more difficult. Stigma negatively impacts relationships; romantic, family, friendship, work colleagues and with yourself.
Then there was the stigma that I couldn’t escape from. The stigma that stared at me and almost mocked me every day. The stigma that I inflicted on myself.
What is wrong with me?
Why can’t I be normal like everyone else?
I am always going to feel like this
I am never going to get better
I’m no fun
Why would anyone want to be my friend?
Why would anyone love me?
If you are struggling with your mental health, it is important to remember that you can live a normal life. You can get a job. You can get promoted. You can buy a house. You can have a healthy happy relationship. You can be a good friend. You can be a good parent. You can be fun. You can laugh a lot. And most important of all, you can be aware of the importance of not judging or stigmatizing others. None of us knows what anyone else is struggling with. A little patience, empathy and support can make a huge difference.
I now know that I am not weak. I have discovered inner strengths that I never realized were within me. I am a warrior, not a victim. I am proud of my past and how it has made me a kinder, less judgmental person. I know that I have many qualities to share with those I love. And I know that I am worth loving.
Remind yourself that YOU ARE TOO!
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following