Land of the (not so stigma) Free
I am livid. I am so frustrated and hurt that I am physically shaking. As someone who almost lost their life to a treatable condition because of negative stereotypes, misinformation, and stigmatizing jokes, I will not laugh when a presidential candidate insults their opponents by implying they are mentally ill or directly insults them by saying they’re “bipolar” or a “lunatic”.
About 1 in 5 people live with a mental illness and that’s not including all the people who never get diagnoses with one because of the stigma that silences them or because they are ignorant about these conditions. We lose thousands of people each year to suicide. I have lost 5 people in my life from suicide. Mostly former classmates, but also one of my uncles. Like me, my classmates very well could have been suffering from mental health symptoms in high school, but because we had zero mental health awareness programs or help resources, they could have suffered without anyone knowing because they feared judgement.
Every time I hear a presidential candidate mock my conditions, I am taken back to high school, an awful time in my life. I suffered from panic attacks almost every day, but I only had them after school because a classmate who had them in school was openly mocked by students and teachers.
Every time I hear mental illness being equated with something negative, I am reminded of the time I sought help after fighting mustering up some sort of courage only for my guidance counselor and school-assigned therapist to tell me that I was “too normal” to have issues, as if my grades and activities reflected every other aspect of my life.
I am reminded of the days before my family accepted my conditions and called me “lazy” when they didn’t realize how exhausting it was to keep up the happy façade at school while trying to survive the hurricane of emotions in my head. No one realized how hard it was to be a perfectionist who worried about everything (thanks Generalized Anxiety Disorder) while simultaneously having no energy or desire to function. No one gets what it’s like to live with mental illness unless you have them.
The people at their podiums who are put on pedestals are out of touch with the reality of our poor mental healthcare system. The stigmatizing views of this country is not a mental illness, but is an illness of another kind. Infecting the minds of the easily influence while poisoning the vulnerable people who are in a dark place mentally.
Why should we have to educate these people about our issues when they should care enough to learn that the suicide and stigma epidemics are stronger than ever? I am a member of an invisible minority, large enough to make an impact in the election, but taboo enough for people to sweep us under the rug like dust bunnies.
I refuse to be silenced by ignorance and hate. I will shout about my experiences, educate people, and stand up for others until my vocal chords are shot. I will write until the joints in my hands lock up. I won’t be defeated. In Greek, my name means “the victorious people” or “victory for the people”, so there’s no way I won’t fight until my people, those of us living with mental illness, are victorious in the battle against stigma because we are people, not the butt of jokes.
Nicole is a public health student and mental health advocate from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She speaks, writes, and tweets about her experiences living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic disorder, and Major Depression. Nicole is also a leader for Team Not Ashamed (@TeamNotAshamed), who are responsible for the #imnotashamed twitter movement to fight mental illness stigma.