Stigmatization of People with Mental Disorders

"Stigmatization of people with mental disorders is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and/or avoidance. Stigma leads the (public) to avoid people with mental disorders. It reduces access to resources and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters
the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for care. Stigma results in outright discrimination and abuse. More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society."

--U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher (ret.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Helping A Friend With Bipolar

This is an unfinished article that definitely needs some additional work, but I wanted to get the guts of it posted. Stay tuned for a revised version.

Bipolar disorder (manic-depression illness) is still not understood very well in the mainstream, and when it is cited in the media, I often cringe, because the reference is usually negative. I get tired of hearing bipolar used as an excuse for criminal behavior. This just further reinforces the stigma and discrimination that many individuals with mental illnesses face. I cannot help it that the chemicals in my brain do not function as they should. I cannot help it that I have a genetically transmitted brain illness that interferes with the way I process and react to certain experiences, either propelling me into a manic rage, or sentencing me to a dark, debilitating bout with depression…and please understand: I cannot just “snap out of it.” A bipolar diagnosis is most often accompanied by a range of other problems including anger, anxiety, paranoia, and agoraphobia. I heard it said recently, that bipolar disorder had become a “fashionable illness.” This enraged me. My illness cost me my career, most of my friendships, my respectability, and more than once, my life was at stake. Doesn’t sound very fashionable to me.

The people in my life who know about and accept my illness are still often left at a loss for words and struggle to know how they might help me when I disappear into a manic or depressive episode. Over the years I have learned how to do a pretty good job of concealing the extremes of my illness. I hate knowing, that at times, I am a burden to those who love me, and consequently, I do my best to put on the smiling face and keep my voice light. Unfortunately, most often I withdraw from the world, trying desperately to hide my disfigurement. Many times, all the courage in the world will not help me reach out when I need it most.

So my family and friends ask: What can I do? How can I help? What should I know? I don’t have all the answers, but a few suggestions come to mind:
First and foremost, learn as much as you can about the illness. A wealth of information is as close as your keyboard.

Learning about the illness will help you begin to recognize signs and symptoms of an impending episode and help you know what you may be able to do to help your friend or loved one. Are they taking their medications? Are they getting adequate sleep? Several of my doctors have advised that they should be contacted immediately when the individual with bipolar stops sleeping. There are a number of medication adjustments that can be made to head off a manic episode.

If you have signed on to support a friend or loved one as they learn to live with bipolar illness, I commend you…It’s not an easy endeavor. Right up front you need to have an honest conversation with the individual to establish boundaries and gain understanding about triggers and signs related to their manic-depressive episodes. It is also important to have a solid support system in place that includes the family, friends, and doctors of the individual you are trying to support. When a crisis is looming, staying in touch with members of the support group is important. All involved should clarify and agree on what steps may need to be taken when the beast rears its ugly head. Has your friend unexpectedly disappeared for several days and can’t be reached by phone or email? It’s not an overreaction to get in your car and go to their house. Find them and try to assess what state they are in. Are they suicidal? Are they incoherent? Are they buried in their bed in a dark room? Are they agitated? Have they been drinking heavily, using drugs, or engaging in other addictions such as shopping or gambling? Sit down beside them and talk to them…Ask them questions about how they are doing and what they are feeling. Reassure them that you are there to help them get through this and that it is not their fault. Remind them that this illness does not define them. Sometimes if the individual is severely agitated or disconnected from reality, it may be necessary to take them to the hospital. Self-harm can be a very real threat when one is in the extremes of this illness.

As I said before, it can be an immensely difficult responsibility to provide support to the bipolar individual when they are in the grips of this illness. There is no shame in admitting you are not up to the task. Still, sometimes it is the simplest things that can make a difference for your suffering friend…holding their hand, giving them a hug, comforting them with calm words, giving them the encouragement to face another day…just being there at a time when they feel most alone.

I am immensely grateful to those who have helped me through the past eight years since my illness exacerbated. I owe my life and my well-being to their support:

 Thank you all.

I'd love to hear other suggestions on how to help your friend or loved one living with bipolar. I learn more about living with this illness every day...AND, oh yes, this illness will not beat me.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


After stepping out of the closet some five years ago, most of you who know me, know that I have struggled with bipolar disorder most of my life. Yes, I have a mental illness. For years I hid my disorder from the world and somehow learned to compensate, and enjoyed a successful career for more than two decades. Untreated, bipolar disorder exacerbates over time, slowly decimating a person's ability to function on a sustained basis, and my well-loved career and many close relationships became casualties of my illness.

As my undiagnosed illness grew worse, and I became well-acquainted with the stigma associated with mental illness. It took more than five years, but I finally found the help I needed and a medical plan that allowed me to begin to successfully manage my illness. I have rejoined the world and now live a happy and productive life.

Despite efforts to educate and improve access to mental health resources, individuals with mental illness go without treatment and face discrimination that impedes their ability to live fully. Suicide claims the lives of one in eight.

The media continues to carelessly malign mental illnesses and it angers and saddens me. I have become a passionate advocate about mental health issues, hopeful that I might encourage someone seek help, or in some way, reduce the stigma faced by those living in the shadows of mental illness.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, David Satcher said it so poignantly:

"Stigmatization of people with mental disorders is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and avoidance...Stigma reduces access to resources and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It results in outright discrimination, and more tragically deprives people of their dignity, and interferes with their full participation in society."

May is Mental Health Month and I ask that you take a moment to access some of the information available on mental illness. Armed with knowledge and understanding, you might just be the one to save or positively change a life.

I am hopeful.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I'm sick and tired of violence being blamed on individuals living with mental disorders

Yes, mental health is an important issue, but I am tired of seeing the blame for violence and criminal acts laid upon those tormented by some type of mental disorder. One in three Americans suffer from some type of mental illness and, for years live with pain and anguish caused by failure to be correctly diagnosed.  I strongly advocate for early and effective screening measures that will result in successful  treatment, or in some cases, incarceration if indicated. Individuals living with mental disorders most often suffer the stigma of their illness, are alienated from others, and often denied their dignity and full participation in society.
I have lived with a mental disorder which first manifested itself in my early teens. I was not correctly diagnosed until the illness exacerbated in my late forties. I somehow compensated for the pain I was living with, and had a successful career for more than two decades and contributed to my community through numerous volunteer activities. I never committed any criminal acts, and the only violence I engendered was directed at me.  Five years after my diagnosis, my doctors finally hit upon a successful medical management plan that has allowed me to once again give back something valuable.
Yes, there are psychopathic individuals who commit or are capable of unfathomable acts of horror, who will never be fit to live in the general population because of their insanity. There are also zealots whose violent acts result from hatred and bigotry, not mental illness. If we could only develop a comprehensive screening program, many of these might be stopped before they cross that threshold into violence.
Life can be a stage for abominable acts, but if you open your eyes and heart wide, you will find gracious moments of kindness, compassion, and beauty.

Education, action, and advocacy are imperative, and we all have a role to play.