WARNING: this post contains material that some may find upsetting and confronting, if you feel depressed and unsafe, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14
All who live with a mental illness experience some form of stigma whether it is in the workplace, from friends, colleagues or complete strangers. It doesn’t matter who it is always hurtful and leaves you further isolated from those around you and society. It is when this stigma comes from your immediate family that we are driven into deeper isolation, suffer loss, are hurt beyond words because it is just human nature that we expect our immediate family to be there and to support us through any illness whether it is physical or mental in nature. This is not the case for some of us and it can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
While every circumstance is different generally when someone is faced with stigmatisation from their family because they suffer from a mental illness it results in conflict and hurt, often it is long lasting and is caused by family members neither wanting to understand mental illness or accept their family member for the person they are and the illness they have.
I have faced some level of stigma throughout my life while I have had a mental illness and even before I knew it existed. Whether it was from kids at school teasing me for my mood, for crying, or for some sort of behavior or self-harm, it happened more times than I could count, leaving me to face school and many students where I clearly did not belong nor was I accepted as an equal. As I grew older I did find a select few started to support me as a friend through my down or moody days, while neither they nor me understood what was going on friendship seemed more important and therefore support came naturally. Maybe it was that I had found true friends or maybe it was that we were all that little bit older, I dont know.
I remember vividly being called a baby, an attention seeker, and a lot of other names that I have blocked from my memory. While I was left feeling very hurt and alone I always ended up quiet defensive and starting conflict. At the time I probably thought that it was retaliation but I think it was more than that, I think it had a lot to do with me lashing out at people who chose to not understand me nor my circumstances, that they would rather be the bully than the supporter, rather look tough to their mates than sympathetic to someone who was hurting.
It was the world that I grew up in, a world that others around me grew up in and it is only now that I am finding out that they too lived in the world I lived in.
From an early age I knew that my parents and sister, in particularly my Mother didn’t understand me or chose not to understand or get involved in my problems or recognising that what I was feeling and going through was more than just misbehavior or seeking attention. I know back then in the 80’s and 90’s mental illness, in my case depression, was not talked about let alone recognised but now that I am a parent I fail to understand how they couldn’t see that there was something wrong with me, that starving and harming myself was not normal and that I needed some sort of help from a GP or other medical professional. Even when teachers would ring with concerns about me they weren’t responsive and take any action. It was always put down to attention seeking and being a trouble maker. When someone outside our family made contact with my Mother about me and that something maybe wrong she would hit the roof and usually struck out at me with violence for daring to go outside the family to talk about my problems, which I didn’t, it was that an outsider had actually seen that I wasn’t happy, that I wasn’t okay. But what were they to do if my own Mother told them that they were wrong and I was fine.
So I grew up in a world of constant conflict and deep depression, resulting in isolation, loneliness, and feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and that I didn’t and would never belong in this world.
After my first suicide attempt my parents, well my Mother, really showed her true colors in her stigmatisation towards me, her daughter. I was in ICU and no amount of telephone calls from both the hospital staff nor my boyfriend, ‘The Fireman’, at the time could convince them that there was something very wrong with me and that they needed to drive to Melbourne to be with me, their daughter, who was so sick she may not have lived through the night. Once again I was left alone by family members who should have been there no matter the circumstances of how I got to be in hospital or what was wrong with me.
I remember clearly the day I was well enough to take a telephone call from my Mother and remember all that she said to me was ‘you just have to get on with things, instead of moping around’, that was it, the extent of her conversation. There was no ‘how are you’, ‘are you okay’, ‘do you need anything’, there was nothing.
I eventually left hospital and I never heard from my Mother, parents or my sister again, to this day. To be honest I am glad they don’t want me in their life, or I don’t fit in with their perfect lives because I can’t forgive them for how they treated me through one of the hardest times in my life, I can’t forgive that they could not drive to Melbourne when their daughter was in ICU and could’ve died.
Stigma is everywhere, but when it is so close to home it breaks your heart and your world, leaving in you in a dark place not just from mental illness but from isolation and hurt from those that are meant to be there, more than anyone else in this world.
I know I am not the only one, I heard from a reader just yesterday who told me of her similar experience facing stigma from her mental illness. Stigma that has left her to hide her illness from everyone around her leaving her alone and facing mental illness isolated from those around her that should be supporting her. Her experience with stigma reached a point some years back when she went through major surgery but yet her own family accused her of seeking attention rather than recognising that she was sick and needed surgery for her own health.
The reality of stigma attached to any mental illness is not just a society who choose not to understand but it brings out the absolute worst in people, it makes people who seem genuine in all other aspects of their life cruel, heartless and ignorant to the struggles that people go through from mental illness that can and does destroy ones life.
I would like to think, I hope, that stigma will eventually be a thing of the past. I would like to think that people who live with a mental illness can be treated equally and do not face the cruelty that stigmatisation imposes on your life. I would like to think that my voice as a advocate for mental illness and the fight against stigma makes a difference in our society that no matter what illness you have, mental or physical, you are treated fairly without judgment and with the decency that is deserved by anyone who is sick. It is time that everyone choses to recognise mental illness for what it is, choose to understand what mental illness is and how it impacts upon the lives who live with these illness, I would like to think that that instead of putting up barriers, people can put their hand out and instead of creating conflict they can create a world of acceptance.