Myths that Increase Mental Health Stigma and Decrease Compassion
The Bipolar Burble blog is pleased to welcome guest author Jessica Gimeno from Flipswitch. Jessica is an online communications associate for The Balanced Mind Foundation and at only 28 is an amazing advocate for people with mental and physical illnesses.
Stigma and Compassion for Both Mental and Physical Illness
In our struggle to obtain mental health parity, I sometimes hear advocates claim or insinuate, “Everyone knows that emotional pain is worse than physical pain.” Really? Believe it or not, this comparison does not help us win society’s empathy and compassion. Have you ever sat at the bedside of a relative who was dying of cancer? It sucks. And if you’ve lived through physical pain but have no experience with mental illness, you’re less likely to have compassion for people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other stigmatized illnesses after hearing this claim.
Mental Pain is Worse Than Physical Pain?
I also know the claim is false. How? Well, I have many physical illnesses: myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis), polycystic ovarian syndrome, asthma, and another respiratory illness. I also have bipolar II. (You might be thinking, how did she get so lucky?) The truth is: All illnesses—mental and physical—are hard. I know what it’s like to feel so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. That used to be my life. I also know what it’s like to endure many surgeries, not be able to feel your legs, and spend over a year lying in bed.
This article is not about bashing the mental health industry (an industry I work in, by the way)—it’s about expanding our worldview and helping others see our physical and mental pain more clearly.
Myths the Mental Health Community Has about Physically Ill People
Truth: People with physical illnesses face stigma too. When I was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis (a 1 in 100,000 disease whose causes are unknown), some people said, “If I had more faith in God, I wouldn’t be sick.” As if my disease were some kind of cosmic punishment. Sound familiar? People with mental illnesses are often told the same thing. Furthermore, just as society thinks “mental illness = incompetent,” sometimes it thinks “physical illness = incompetent!” That’s why FDR hid his wheelchair and JFK hid his autoimmune disease. Both men faced painful challenges and both were great presidents.
Myth: Society is so much nicer to physically ill people.
Truth: The world is not always disability friendly. Do you know how hard it is to find a seat on my daily train ride to work? The disability section is always full. While I carry a cane that I call Erica Kane, there are many physically ill people who look fine on the outside—they are called “spoonies.” They often hear, “But you don’t look sick.” Sound familiar? It’s like when mentally ill people are denied insurance or school and workplace accommodations because we don’t have “real” illnesses.
What Mentally and Physically Ill People Have in Common
- We are resilient. We are the sum of our challenges and accomplishments. It is true that I have been in physical pain 24/7 for the past four years. It is also true that ratings for my depression/bipolar podcast and blog, Flipswitch, have increased by over 400% in one year. In fact, the National Council of Community Behavioral Healthcare recently awarded me second prize in their Reintegration and Awards of Excellence. Someone I’m interviewing for Flipswitch asked if we should focus on symptoms of her borderline personality disorder or “resume stuff” like graduating from college. I told her we should do both. Her life is more than illness—it’s about her resilience.
- We are “über-empathetic” (yeah, I just made that word up). Because of our trials, we are better at sensing another person’s pain. When I’m crying in bed because my antibodies are attacking me, I think of others: a relative going through a divorce, a friend with bipolar, a friend with lupus, etc. I pray for them, call them up, or send cards. Pain comes in different packages but empathy is universal.
When we communicate that we understand physical illness is also hard and want mental illnesses to be treated with the same respect, we make it easier for society to show us compassion and decrease stigma for both.
Jessica Lynn Gimeno works for The Balanced Mind Foundation. She is the author and host of Flipswitch, the award-winning weekly podcast & blog that helps teens and 20-somethings understand depression and bipolar disorder (find her on Twitter). In her free time, Jessica also runs a blog called Fashionably ill: The Cancer & Autoimmune Girl’s Stylist. Jessica graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with two majors.