According to the internet, my friends, and mental health groups all over the world, I am a stigma fighter. I’m an elite, mentally ill stigma fighter looking to change the perception of mental illness in a single bound. I, of course, am not an elite anything, but I am a person with knowledge, lived experience, and knack for getting myself into situations where providing a little context goes a long way. Having the ability to provide such information is the true power of all stigma fighters.
I was born with mental illness, hit my crisis point in my mid-twenties, and was diagnosed while in an inpatient psychiatric ward of a local hospital. When I was diagnosed, what I didn’t know about mental illness greatly outweighed what I did know. Even what I did know was almost entirely wrong – a tidbit of fact wrapped in multiple layers of fear, stereotype, and misinformation.
It took me many years and many setbacks, but eventually I was able to use therapy, medication, experience, and sheer determination to reach stability. After people found out about my diagnoses, I noticed some strange behavior in the people around me, both in how they acted and how they treated me.
People Became Tongue-Tied – They no longer knew how to talk to me. People I had known for years suddenly were unable to communicate with me.
They Treated Me as a Scapegoat – People were now able to blame everything on me! Is there a problem and you are unsure who’s to blame? It must be the man with bipolar!
I Became an Advice Magnet – Before being diagnosed with mental illness, no one felt the need to offer unsolicited advice. Thanks to the magical power of severe and persistent mental illness, all of the advice someone has been holding in is now appropriate for me! Do you have the wrong idea, impression, or love to play on stereotypes? Come find me. I want to sit back and listen to you explain to me what I am going through.
Because of all of the misinformation out there, I honed my ability to explain to people what living with mental illness really means. Replacing their fear with facts. I am a mental illness mythbuster by day and a stigma fighter by night! Or vice versa – I show up when and where I’m most needed.
I have bipolar and anxiety disorders and I freely acknowledge this to anyone who cares to know. Does owning my mental illness and sharing it with others help me as much as it helps others? Absolutely. There is an incredible amount of value in being who I am, and being secure enough to share. There is a subtle confidence boost in being called brave, inspirational, or amazing.
There is a downside, however. Not everyone feels the same. To many people, admitting you have a mental illness is proof your mental illness isn’t “under control.” They let stereotype, fear, and personal bias get in the way of seeing me as a person. They judge me, and often harshly. They see it as something I should be ashamed of.
I know I am changing the way people see mental illness. I see great value in being open and honest and talking to as many people as I can about what my life is like, about what I have been through and what it took to reach the point where I am now.
I am proud to be a stigma fighter and to be on this stigma fighting team!
Gabe Howard is a keynote speaker, award-winning advocate, mental illness blogger and writer, as well a person living with severe bipolar and anxiety disorders. In the past ten years, he has made it his mission to put a face on mental illness that isn’t stereotypical. Society often sees people living with mental illness at their worst and he works to add a more balanced view to the conversation. Gabe is frequently irreverent, often too loud, and always unpredictable, but anyone who knows him will tell you that life would be so boring without him. You can connect with Gabe on Twitter, Facebook and his website.