The Stigma of Living with a Mental Illness

During my first course in Psychology my professor said, “If you are living with a loved one with a mental illness—they may be making you feel like you are going crazy.” Even the word “crazy” can be associated with disgrace for someone who struggling to accept a mental health diagnosis.  I want to encourage you by offering suggestions for coping with stigma and increase awareness. If your child or spouse had cancer, your neighbors and friends might bring you a casserole, write a note or give you a call of support. But what if you are experiencing one of the following situations?

  • Your teen refuses to go to school due to feeling “sick, dizzy and a racing heart.” She reports feeling like she cannot breathe when talking about peer interaction or from negative social media communication. Her fear of performance in unfamiliar situations is overwhelming and anxious thoughts hinder learning and enjoyment of social interaction. You struggle with guilt that you are unable to help your child and wonder about her future.
  • You are at McD’s when your young child has a complete meltdown including throwing himself on the floor, screaming, hitting you, and desperately crying. You continually find yourself in power struggles as the result of his refusal to listen and inability to follow simply instructions for safety. Frantically, you choose to leave the table where your family sits as carry your thrashing child to the car. You suddenly notice the confused look on the faces of those around you. You wonder what they must be thinking. You may overhear comments: “Is that child abused?” “That is so annoying—can’t they calm their child down?” “Boy, do they need some parenting classes to teach proper discipline.”
  • Your loved one turns down every invitation to the beach, pool parties and social engagements. She is often jealous or fearful of being compared to other “more attractive” women. You worry about her preoccupation with rejection, appearance and continual diets.
  • You are preparing to attend a community event when your daughter decides to wear her shortest shorts revealing carefully placed scars, exactly ½ inch apart on her upper thighs. When you point out your concern, she calmly replies, “They are evidence of a battle.” Once again your eyes fill with tears as you ponder how you ever got to this place. Unable to make her know she is loved, you think about what to say to family and friends that you will see today.
  • Your partner insists on getting intoxicated during a much needed night out on the town. He/she becomes obnoxious, once again placing you in the role of “the responsible one.” You absorb the emotional pain and spend your evening making sure everyone gets home safely. As you think about your partner’s failures, you wrestle with loneliness and resentment. You worry underlying reasons for drinking and about your future.  Making excuses to reduce the shame, you wonder if you are being a faithful friend or enabling partner.

ParentTeen4Perhaps you can identify with one of these scenarios or know a family facing the stigma of a mental illness.

If so, I recommend the following steps:

  1. Identify people and things that refresh you and your family in the journey; spend time and money on those things. Reach out and connect with someone else who is experiencing similar challenges and mental illness.
  2. Celebrate the progress that you have made rather than focusing on how far you have to go.
  3. Seek professional help and learn all you can about your loved one’s mental illness diagnosis including current research about positive outcomes.
  4. Ask your therapist or doctor about resources within your community for additional support.
  5. Remember to take a deep breath in the midst of an episode so you are thinking clearly.
  6. Craft short statements that can be made to strangers in public places that will help set boundaries, prevent calls to authorities and persevere you personal space.
  7. Hold a family meeting to discuss the benefits of sharing limited information with extended family, school staff, clergy, work environment etc. (who, when, where and how much to share) Remember, we only need to share enough information to prevent exhaustion and promote success.
  8. Remind yourself that people with any type of mental health diagnosis can learn how to lead productive and happy lives within their unique limitations.
  9. Self-care, self-care, self-care . . .  and tell yourself “I am enough” when you know you have done enough because you cannot fix everything!

Self-careWith the rise of traumatic events in our society, the general public is becoming more aware of the symptoms and struggles associated with a mental health diagnosis. Today, we hear more psychological term used in everyday conversations as a way to cope with unexplained, extreme behaviors. Generally speaking, our culture no longer attributes all negative behaviors to demons, lack of morals or discipline but the stigma of a mental health remains. We need for continued education that promotes respect, empathy and hope for individuals with a mental illness and their families.

Resource: NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Health http://www.nami.org/


Author: Beth Holloway, MA, LPC for Miller Counseling Services, PC

Beth Holloway, MA, LPCA

Beth Holloway, MA, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has more than 12 years’ experience in the mental health field. She has recently joined the Miller Counseling Services team and specializes in counseling individuals and couples who have experienced all types of losses including abuse, domestic strife, and trauma. She enjoys leading group therapy classes in the areas of Divorce Recovery, Spiritual Enrichment, Couples and Parent/Child Relationships, Grief Processing and Depression Recovery. Beth has had the privilege of traveling all over the United States and to more than 10 foreign countries and has been enriched by learning about people from diverse cultures and ethnic groups.

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