Franciscan Spirit Blog

Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

Shame and mental illness

“But I am pretty sure [my friend] never imagined the day she would calm me on the phone after an irregular mammogram, the day she would see the reality of what I meant by severe anxiety and self-harm tendencies, what she would come to know about the roots of my pain and shame. And I know for a fact she never imagined the day she would hold my head in her lap in the back of our car as we drove to the office of the psychiatrist who would admit me to the hospital for a nervous breakdown.” 

Recently someone used this quote from my book When We Were Eve as a condemnation of my mental health issues and proof of my instability. I almost laughed out loud at the irony. There are so many reasons to find that humorous.

First, I wrote a book. A whole book. In which I share openly about my battles with mental health and what that has looked like in the worst moments and in the best moments. To take my battles out of context is to attempt to make me invisible and instead elevate a diagnosis as my primary identity.

Second, this person can not possibly know what it takes to write that openly, to be that vulnerable, to put your weaknesses on display for the world to see and to resign yourself to the judgements they will form about your character. No weak-minded, fearful person becomes a mental health advocate, I can promise that much.

But the experience brought to light for me a cultural trend that I have been seeing but unable to identify completely.

The Mental Health Stigma

Without a doubt, we are breaking barriers to the conversation about mental health and the taboo of speaking about it publicly. We are all for sharing your diagnosis, your triumph story about learning to cope, or the suicide hotline number to help those you love. However, when what you have to share is not the story of triumph but the messy middle of mental illness, people begin to shrink back.

There are few people these days who will openly react to your diagnosis of depression or bipolar or PTSD. But start talking about the reality of living with those diagnoses and suddenly an uncomfortable silence settles around mental illness.

Not many people want to know about the days your body wages a battle against breathing and swallowing and moving. About what it means to be suddenly besieged with unmanageable anxiety or intrusive suicidal ideations. Fewer people still want to hear about the way shame and self-disgust have played into the development of your mental illness, and sometimes, how even your faith has had its hand in those.

Walk in the Light

But here’s the thing. Even in that stinging, difficult moment, the temptation to regret sharing my very real story lasted only a flash.

Because here is what I know. Light only shines when we refuse to hide in the darkness. And sometimes that light will shine harsh and make us want to shield our eyes from even the truth about ourselves or the way that truth is interpreted. But our eyes are made to adjust, and they always do. And our Savior consistently admonished us to walk as children of light.

Whatever the story is that you are holding in fear, go ahead and loosen your grip a bit and see if you don’t find warmth in the light that trickles in. You don’t have to write it in a book. Maybe you just need to tell it truthfully to yourself. I promise you this much: you will never regret being honest with yourself.

And if your particular story involves a battle with mental illness and you feel scared and alone in the truth of what that looks like, I’ll save you a place out here on the limb with me. And I’ll shield your eyes until the light feels good. But please, go ahead and say it out loud. Some way. Somewhere. To someone.

The world needs our stories to light its darkness, and even from the messy middle of your own dark place, you have a light to shine.

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