Mention that your child is going into the hospital for a heart condition or cancer treatment and a world of questions, concern, and sympathy opens up.
Mention your child is going into the hospital for psychiatric treatment and a world of silence and judgement ensues.
In Stephen P. Hinshaw’s Another Kind of Madness: A Journey Through the Stigma and Hope of Mental Illness, he talks about the need to de-stigmatize mental illness. He references a time when his father’s own psychiatrist (!) urged the family to keep the illness from his children for fear it would destroy them.
Sometimes it’s the person themselves suffering from a mental health condition that is the one that feels the need to stay silent. Doreen Sutherland recently published her struggles with bipolar and the ways in which she helped contribute to the stigma. Now struggling with cancer and receiving an outpouring of support she ironically points out how her bipolar, which has the same mortality rate as the kind of cancer she has, was treated in a completely different manner.
Some progress has been made, but there’s still a stigma associated with mental health that prevents us from focusing on serious solutions.
So, how do you change it?
Maybe it starts by viewing an illness in the brain the same way we view an illness in our kidney or bones.
Maybe it starts with just talking about it more. I agree with Hinsaw’s assessment that the more stories and experiences we are exposed to about any topic tends to normalize it. And once you begin talking the solutions will come.
If you have a friend or family member struggling with mental illness, think about how you’d respond if their health was being affected by heart disease or a leg injury. The perspective changes considerably. It deserves the same sympathy, support, and consideration.
Glenn Close got it right – “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation, about illnesses that affect not only individuals but their families as well.”