During German class one day, I came face to face with my first real experience with stigma towards mental illness. I found myself needing to talk about this, considering that I have at least some kind of voice and outlet in this community through which to talk about this experience. Mental illness has never defined my existence on this Earth, but it has been a part of it. I suffer from a cyclical depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (yes, literally SAD), which means that during the winter time, when my brain processes fewer light frequencies, I become depressed. It is something that I manage but keep quiet about most of the time. People often fail to see me as a “depressed person,” even when I am at my worst, because I am very good at functioning as “normal.” But for better or for worse, my brain fails to stay super cheerful in the winter, and that is just as “normal” as any other human, because plenty of people suffer from it.
But now that you have that background, I want to talk about that German class. We were watching a German TV show, and they happened to introduce a character who was an orphan going to therapy. This particular character went into a fit of rage and smashed up a trash bin and a mirror. After the episode, we answered some questions about it and discussed it. In this period of time, the character was called “crazy” and a “psychopath,” and jokes were made at his expense. I try to surround myself with people who are supportive of mental illness, and I have been blessed not to run into this type of situation before. It had never been so up close and personal before, and never had I felt so invisible or so shamed.
For anyone who does not understand the problem with this, let me give you an explanation. Crazy is a derogatory term used to belittle and put people down – quite often, people with mental illness or women who exhibit emotional behavior, which men will refer to as crazy. Calling this character a psychopath is a reference to what we often associate with violence – specifically, horrific violence towards people, which this troubled individual was not exhibiting. Lastly, the jokes rendered him a laughable character. In the space of this class period, he was belittled, shamed and laughed at as if he did not even exist. I know people with some of the mental illnesses that are the least understood and most feared and reviled. They are wonderful and amazing humans who have so much to offer but have been driven to hide their struggles from the world for fear of stigma. They want to live without being belittled, shamed and laughed at, much like anyone else.
Driving them into hiding has meant that we pretend they are nonexistent and can avoid the subject and keep shaming and laughing at them. Only this is a real problem within the U.S. and it comes in more forms than the serious disorders. It is the grieving parents who lost a child and are now struggling to take care of themselves. The person who just lost their job and who is facing homelessness. It is the student whose parents are splitting up or whose grandparent died. It is the single parent struggling to make ends meet as they wrench themselves out of bed to go to one of three jobs. Together we make up 1 in 5 U.S. adults – or 18.5%, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness – who have suffered from a mental health episode in any given year. You might have passed one of us on the street or sat next to one of us in class or maybe are friends with one of us, or you yourself might have experienced this. The major difference is that some of us have brains that operate differently and we might struggle with periods of depression or anxiety for much longer.
So often when we are confronted with behavior that is “not normal” we respond with fear and that fear can often turn to disgust and stigma. But this does not cause the difference in brains to disappear. Nor does it help the people who are just experiencing an episode. It does not take much to learn more about the mental illnesses we find to be the scariest, like schizophrenia or bipolar or borderline personality disorder. Listen to a podcast, TED Talk or a youtube video that shows you the real faces behind the “scary” symptoms. To even just befriend someone who has a diagnosis is sometimes enough. You might realize that they are quite often perfectly “normal” human beings. They may not function the same or think quite the same but they still love and laugh and cry like anyone else. Just because they might have a panic attack or are not able to get out of bed some days or have delusions does not make them worthy of shaming or cruelty.
Because at the end of the day, people like me are advocating and fighting for everyone who ever finds themselves “feeling down” or experiencing anxiety. We want people to live in a world of compassion where people can admit mental weakness some days without people calling them crazy, telling them to get over it or treating them like they should be locked up. We want to be able to take care of ourselves after a panic attack and not have to pretend that we have a virus just to be able to calm down, or if we collapse in tears in public, we should not become pariahs. The fact of the matter is that my brain operates differently, and I should not be penalized for something that I have no control over. Whatever you believe, you probably know someone who had to struggle in silence, and if you cared about them you would also probably care that they had to do it alone. And whatever you think about their suffering, I am sure that the very least that we can agree on is that we never want our loved ones to suffer alone.