Stigma: Maybe the Worst Thing About Mental Illness

This is an iPhone night shot of the gate where Chinatown begins and Little Italy ends on 97 street in Edmonton.


I wanted to talk about Stigma today for many reasons. I don’t know how many of you may experience this like I do, but all the time I replay things over in my head, especially events where I felt so incredibly ashamed that I actually sometimes feel I don’t even deserve to be alive. This is not a suicide note, my mood is good, I have friends and family who care, a life I love. But there are things that happened as a result of my illness (bipolar, as well as schizoaffective, and anxiety) that I just feel I will never live down.

Things go back a long way. As a kid I didn’t have many friends, my short haircut made me stand out, and I loved reading and books more than hockey. There were so many fights in elementary and somehow I won most of them. Those experiences laid some pretty horrible groundwork for a young teen with low self esteem. I went into high school thinking I was unloveable, ugly, and thinking that everyone hated me. Then, as I got older I found evidence to the contrary due to some attention and even strong friendships with some very attractive women. There was one I was totally head over heels infatuated with. It was an unhealthy obsession. One day I wrote her a letter and she was very nice about things, she told me she herself was very stuck on someone–her boyfriend.

Eventually I stopped calling her and meeting her for lunch and such. It was very hard, but I thought if I made a clean break I could move on, forget her. Things only got worse. I was spiralling down into a serious depression that put me into such a funk that I didn’t think I would ever get out of it. A lot happened. I developed severe symptoms of my mental illness and was hospitalized. Again, due to extreme stigma I didn’t want to have a label on me, didn’t think that I had any problems I couldn’t handle on my own. I stopped taking my medications and hitch-hiked out to the coast.

In Vancouver, I made some close friends, but after a while my illness caught up with me again. I went back to Edmonton and was soon unfit to be outside of an institution. I went back to the hospital again. The fact that I had ridiculous delusions of grandeur, voices, times of no sleep or deep depressions didn’t convince me. Once again I left the hospital and went off my medications. I contacted one of my Vancouver friends and in days I was planning to go out there again.

What was odd about these times is that somehow I had developed some self-confidence, and a lot of social skills, and I was meeting young women left and right. I no longer saw myself as ugly, I saw myself as pretty handsome. I never slept around with any of these women, but I enjoyed their company and was almost never alone or without someone to call. Then my birthday rolled around and as a present to myself I called up my old flame from school.

We got along well, and she seemed happy to hear from me and had a few long talks about people we knew and the stages of our lives we had gone through in the years that we weren’t speaking. I don’t know how it happened just then, but at an extremely rapid rate I started having more delusions. I remember one hallucination that I thought she told me that she would love me until the day I died. I started calling her too much, writing letters every day. Soon she changed her number and I ended up in a psychiatric ward.

The worst part of it was finding her number some years later and calling her up and asking:

“Surely you didn’t just think I was some kind of psychopath?”

“Yes I did think you were some kind of psychopath.”

Those words cut me deeper than any injury or knife ever had. They very nearly drove me to take my own life. I never spoke to her again.

Stigma takes so many things away from us. It can take away any feeling of safety a person might have. When I was in high school I missed school for a while before I actually had my biggest breakdown and was arrested in school, and many people knew what had happened. My best friend, who was half my size seemed to think that he was in charge of me and could threaten me with violence to make me do anything he wanted. Remarks were made, lies were made up, accusations of things like pulling a knife or other things came out of thin air. Then there were the threats.

Perhaps what sux the most about mental illness and stigma is that it never goes away. Any place you can find a person who picks their friends based on their supposed social status or popularity among whatever circle you will find people who will cut you out of their life no matter how long you knew them. I had gone to school with one guy, did everything with him from age 14 on. There was a period of maybe two or three months when he would drive out to my apartment, pick me up, buy me lunch and take me to a movie. He was unemployed at the time and I was underemployed and it made for a really enjoyable and memorable summer. Then one day I was experiencing debilitating depression and went into the hospital to get medications worked out and I called him up. I told him where I was and he said to me, “Oh I wish I could do that. Any time I decide I can’t handle life I’ll just go to the hospital like you did.” I couldn’t believe he said that, my best friend.

The funny thing is that there is simply so many forms of mental illness that these people who stigmatize others are damning themselves in many cases as well.

I hate to admit it, but when I was 18 and was coming from a private, upper-middle class suburban high school, I didn’t want to make friends with anyone in the hospital. Fortunately I was able to overcome that as I matured. Very fortunate because I now teach creative writing to patients in a hospital and that attitude wouldn’t have gotten me very far.

For about seven years, I worked for the union that handled labour for entertainment. This was not only a very difficult job physically, the mental stress it loaded on a person was ridiculous. I recall this one guy, a real asshole who had so much seniority that he had no problem at all insulting people right to their face. I was talking with another co-worker once and when I came within range of this stinking fart of a human being, he said, “So what did you f%*$ up now?” I don’t know if he had any awareness of my psychiatric disability, but to me saying something like that is a lot like insulting a paralyzed person in a wheelchair for not getting up for a run.

So what happens then as a result of stigma? People feel isolated, demoralized, insulted, persecuted, on and on and on. They eventually give up trying, their condition gets worse, they start to collect benefits, and one in ten (at least of those people with schizophrenia) die by suicide.

I had occasion not long ago to give a talk about mental health to a group of security guards. One of them was so incredibly insensitive that he put up his hand and gave me a lecture about how important his job is and how he and his co-workers didn’t have time to deal with people in psychosis the way we were suggesting. Some people, and it is often these untrained and likely sociopathic security guards see those with mental health issues as some kind of dangerous threat that has to be quickly neutralized and removed from the mall for public safety. I would have very much liked to mention that  a fellow Air Cadet I knew well was harassed by a security guard with very similar opinions and won enough money from the mall in a lawsuit that he no longer had any money problems in his life.

That is a bit of a digression. There was this one time though when I myself was working as a security guard and a woman ran up to me yelling for help. I told her to stop and to come inside the hotel I was working at so we could phone whoever was needed but she kept on yelling and running. About a block away a police officer ran up behind her and tackled her. That kind of set me off. Tackling someone on grass is one thing, tackling a woman on cement is another. But it was okay, she wasn’t really a human being. Sickening.

Something I would like to write about if people out there are able to concentrate after all this rambling, is what can you do to overcome stigma? And to say stigma, I also refer to the bad memories I often can’t get out of my head. For me, one thing that really helped was to volunteer at a University radio station which was also a community radio station and I got my own show. I met people, learned a lot, and it was a confidence booster. The logical path would be to volunteer at your dream job, learn if you really like it, then try and get some training or school in the field and then try, even if it is low pay, part-time or difficult, to work that dream job you have.

I really have a lot I could say on this topic, but I will leave off there for now. I want to leave you with a quote that has always helped me get through some very difficult times, it is an ancient proverb, most likely from China that simply states, “A man with one friend is a rich man.” So that is my assignment: go out and make a friend. Make a few friends, so you don’t put too much of a demand on just one of them. It can be a stepping stone, a destination. It can also be one of the best ways to tell stigma to go and jump in a lake.

One comment

  1. Great post. I don’t stigma by openly taking about my mental illnesses at work-I’m a nurse, on my blog, at church, in my personal life. And although it can be nerve wracking, I freeing as well. I don’t have to keep it a secret.


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