The stigma inside, the stigma outside; how mental health affects everyone

As someone who has worked in the field of behavioral health for nearly 5 years I realize something that is disconcerting; there is a lot of stigma about mental health, both those affected by it and the public.

I kind of was aware of this before getting into the field, the media has a cruel trend of making issues of mental illness and those who have it heinous monsters. It appears to me that it is little more than sensationalism much of the time. This stigma brought about by the media it is ill-informed and doesn’t do more than sell newspapers.

But the truth of the matter is that there isn’t just stigma on the outside, there is a lot of stigma on the inside. Since I have a perspective of one who works with those who have different mental illnesses, social-emotional disorders, etc. I feel a responsibility to rectify the stigmas where I can. I know that my words won’t shift the public perception completely, but to you the reader I hope you learn something from what I’ve gleaned in my time invested in this field.

People have mental illnesses, they are NOT their mental illness:
All too often people who have mental illnesses are classified by what they have as if they were the proverbial “poster child” of bipolar, schizophrenia, schizophreniform, borderline personality disorder, etc. Even the people who have this will say (whether intentional or not) that I am bipolar, I am schizophrenic, and so on. Some people I have met who have mental illnesses have used this as a way to self-identify, others have used it as a cop-out for their behavior (usually in light of something negative).

No person no matter how debilitating their mental illness is in fact their mental illness. I can sympathize with those who do feel this way, but I usually steer them into a mindset of what I’ve just made known, that people have mental illnesses but are not in fact their mental illness incarnate. My apologizes in perhaps beating the proverbial dead horse, but I want this point to be made perfectly clear.

It is better to listen than to talk and give out unsolicited advice:
As obvious as this might seem, it is still worth pointing out. To those in the fields of psychology, sociology, and any other field that requires interaction with people who have mental illnesses, take time to develop active listening skills as well as a good bedside manner, it will make all the difference in the world. Certainly take in what you hear with a grain of salt (at the very least) but you’d be surprised at perspectives that might not be “by the textbook”.

If I hadn’t taken the time to listen to one of my former residents, I would never have gotten an in-depth perspective of what life is like when you have auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations. This and other perspectives I have gleaned over the years have caused me to think and re-think what I personally know, and by far I have insight that I once didn’t have simply because I chose to listen and not impose what I think.

Sometimes you are the only “family” a person with mental illness has:
I have seen a lot of this and it still bothers me, family members not showing up or having little to do with their mother, father, son, daughter, brother, daughter because of their mental illness. Unfortunately I am whomever is working with that person is left to handle the damage control and whatever fall out that might ensue because of that family member’s failure to show up. In these instances I take time to listen, take time to BE with that individual, and sympathize with them and what he or she might be feeling.

Now I understand that “life happens” all the time, but for some individuals I have worked with the failure to show up on their family’s part was all too common. It’s heartbreaking for me to bear witness to someone who has been overlooked by their family. Please, for the love of the person, do NOT do this please.

Treating mental illness calls for a holistic approach:
The thing is that we’re treating a human being who has a mental illness, NOT a mental illness that has a human being. With that being said I find that a holistic treatment plan should be in place for that person. Why, you might ask? Well the thing is, medicine (provided the person is taking them) is NOT enough, and as I have told those I worked with in the past as well as in the present a holistic treatment plan I perceive a holistic treatment plan to look a little something like this.
– take your meds when you have to
– meet with your doctors and therapists when you need to
– get out in the community (provided this is an available option to the person)
– talk to staff in general, but also talk to them when you are having difficulties
– be honest with yourself about what you’re going through in life. do not sweep it under the carpet, do not stuff it down and repress it.
I have communicated this to my residents because I’ve worked with individuals who have thought they’d be “cured” of their mental illness by medicine alone. I do explain that mental illnesses cannot be cured, but managed well provided the individual puts in the effort to getting help and allowing themselves to being helped where needed.

As I go back to college very soon (more on this for my next post) I plan on continuing on in the field of behavioral health, and it is my intention to be more of an advocate and ally of people who have mental illnesses.


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