Break the Stigma


Oct. 2nd—8th is Mental Health Awareness week. Mental health awareness, along with suicide awareness is something incredibly important and personal to me. I come from a family with history of mental illness, particularly depression, and I have lost 4 family members to suicide.

This mental illness trait is something that is genetically passed down through my family. In the same way hypertension, kidney disease and other physical conditions are passed down in others.

Personally, I was diagnosed with Dysthymia many many years ago. Dysthymia is chronic low lying depression and is sometimes referred to as high functioning depression. That means I can still carry on my every day to day activities and function as I should but on the inside, I’m constantly battling the negative thoughts and other symptoms. It’s like an insidious monster sitting on my shoulder always trying to rear its ugly head. There have been times when I ‘ve gone through major life changes that resulted in the Dysthymia turning into major depressive episodes and have had suicidal thoughts myself. I, too, have had very dark days in which I didn’t think I would make it through.

I never asked to have this condition and nor did the millions of other people in this world with various other mental health diagnoses.

From my own battles and from observations from my nursing career, there are things that I have seen first hand about how people and society generally seem to view people with mental illness.

My personal battles have showed me that most individuals just don’t understand mental disorders. It’s as if they think people can just “will it away”.  Depression and other mental disorders are true diagnosable medical conditions in the same way that cancer, hypothyroidism, lupus etc. are. How many cancer patients can “will their cancer to be gone?”. It’s impossible. So how the hell do they expect someone to “will away” their depression or other mental illness?

I’m very fortunate in that I’m a well respected, college educated, successful medical professional. Fortunate in that, because of my “status”, I’m not looked down upon like most of the other people battling mental conditions are. In addition, I’m blessed to  know when the symptoms of depression are starting to develop so I’m able to recognize them and take the action needed to prevent it from “taking over”. To add even further,  I also have a great support system and people I can call at any time. I know and able to fully comprehend and understand that I am loved, supported and never alone, despite the fact that I’ve dealt with many individuals that don’t understand the illness.

There are millions of people with mental conditions that have a disease process that is so strong and powerful they are not able to recognize when the symptoms are happening. They are also not able to reach out to anyone for help. The symptoms of the condition prevent that from happening so it is not necessarily all their fault, unlike what most people believe.  A lot of these people suffer in silence and/or completely alone because they don’t have a support system and/or people that understand or refuse to be educated on the psychological and physiological make up of their disorder.

Our streets are full of homeless psychiatric victims that are “dismissed” because they are “just crazy”.  If some random person that is out in public begins to have an acute medical episode such as a seizure or a heart attack, strangers will stop and help care for them. Why don’t they ever stop to help or even show concern for the mentally ill patients?

There was a time when I worked in an acute mental health setting. It was an extension of the emergency room of a charity hospital. The hospital didn’t want acute psych patients to be “mingled in” to the general ER population so they created this “extension” specifically for them. It was a specialty unit and we had actual parish police officers as security officers.

Since it was a “mental health” ER, we got patients in true acute psych episodes. Part of their symptoms would be not wanting to come into the unit and sometimes they would lay themselves down in defiance. The cops would then have to pick them up and carry them in. Afterwards, I would hear comments from them such as “man, I need to wash my hands now” and “I feel dirty” etc. They looked down on these patients as if their lives were less valuable than theirs-all because they were experiencing symptoms of their disease. If the patients came into the ER in acute respiratory distress instead, I don’t think they would have been thought of like that! They were treated differently because their sickness was psychological in nature and not physical. If a patient with a brain tumor starts hallucinating, no one will look down on that person. So why is it that society thinks that it’s ok to look down on and make fun of mentally ill patients that are experiencing those symptoms?

After my experience as a psych nurse, I went on to become a hospice nurse. Whenever I had a patient that started their transition period from life to death, their entire family as well as neighbors and friends always showed up. I’d refer to this as the “death watch”. All these people would gather around to support the patient’s immediate family and to help care for the dying patient. There would be times that there would be so many people, I would have to actually ask people to leave the room and/or go home to allow the family/patient private time because it would get to be overwhelming. However, even as overwhelming it would get, I always thought that was a very beautiful thing-to have all those people there in the time of great need to assist the patient and family.  Wouldn’t it be an awesome incredible thing for suicidal patients and their families to be able to have that kind of support? Yet, they generally don’t.

One of the main reasons, these suicidal people and family members, as well patients and family members of other mental disorders, don’t have that kind of support is because they have been conditioned to keep those matters private. Largely due to the stigma that has been placed on it. We have got to break this stigma! Why does society feel that mental problems are something to be ashamed of? These are medical conditions just like anything else. Having this “label” prevents a lot of people from getting the help that they so desperately need. It has got to stop!!!

We get rid of this stigma by talking about it, showing unconditional love and letting people know that they are not alone. They need to know that they don’t have to suffer in silence and/or have to feel shameful for having a medical condition that they didn’t ask for.

It is my hope that one day, society will start to see mental disorders in the same way that physical disorders are seen. Mentally ill people need and deserve to have the same kind of support, love and compassion that physically ill people do. The only way that we accomplish this is by educating people and letting them know that it is ok to speak up. That is how the stigma can be broken. One person alone can not accomplish this task, however. We need to come together as a society with each person performing their individual role.

The part I play is by sharing my story of my own battles in order to reach out to those that are still suffering to give them hope. I also advocate and speak up for those that are unable to speak for themselves and volunteer for the American Federation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). What part do you personally play?

Thanks for reading.

Peace & love,

~Tiff

#breakthestigma #mentalhealthawareness #stopsuicide

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