Let's Talk About Stigma

"Get over it."

"What happened wasn't that bad."

"Lots of people have it worse than you."

These phrases crept into my mind for years before I finally sought help.

Many people hear the same phrases but rationalize away any possibility that what troubles them could be the root cause of their continuing unhappiness. Because the stigma of seeking assistance with mental health remains a powerful force in society.

Part of the problem: Just living life is often a struggle, even under the best of circumstances. So it's hard to tell the difference between "normal" struggle, and struggle exacerbated by anxiety, depression or trauma with roots in experiences swept below the surface long ago.

It doesn't help matters, in my opinion, that these conditions are labeled Mental Illness. The name sounds creepy. There's a stigma attached because it's so broad and undefined. Cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure aren't folded into Physical Illness. To me, it is more accurate and helpful to use specific terms (anxiety or OCD or narcissistic personality disorder or depression or PTSD etc.) instead of lumping vastly differing conditions together under the umbrella term of Mental Illness. A cold and cancer are both Physical Illness.

I've learned in psychotherapy that my daily interactions are filtered through a (sometimes harsh) lens colored by my past childhood trauma. My self-imposed isolation was a result of negative thought processes and led to anxiety and depression. I'm learning to recognize when I'm misreading or reacting negatively to situations that are not, actually, threatening. Also, catching myself when destructive thought patterns, learned long ago, stealthily invade my outlook.

So while I suppose I may be labeled Mentally Ill because I suffer from the residual effects of childhood trauma – which include anxiety, irritation, self-doubt and depression – I'd argue the label is overly dramatic and sinister. Its coldness doesn't invite societal empathy or curiosity or advance the cause of demystifying psychotherapy or other treatment options. 

It's important to fight the stigma associated with mental health so people feel free to explore their inner world. A task sometimes far too difficult to tackle alone.

I've been astonished by my friends' differing reactions to my book. Some write me heartfelt notes and our relationship takes on fresh importance with a renewed sense of connection. Others I never hear from again. Did they hate the book? Are they afraid of me, now? I don't know. But my therapist said it's about them, not about me.

I think it's about stigma.