By Ashley Nestler, MSW
As a mental health specialist and someone who has multiple mental illnesses and associated disabilities, I am no stranger to stigma and discrimination.
I have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, schizoaffective disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. While I do not have any physical disabilities, I have disabilities associated with my mental illnesses, such as fibromyalgia, that are invisible to others and limit my ability to work. I have been invalidated and outright confronted with discrimination when I verbalize my disability status, and how my mental illnesses are the cause of my disabilities.
Disability and mental illness alone are accompanied by significant stigma and discrimination, but when paired together, they result in a unique experience the mental health community calls, “double discrimination.” Mental illness is still so misunderstood, and when an individual has severe mental illnesses that contribute to their disability status, or they have physical disabilities paired with mental illness, others are often unable or unwilling to understand the complex experience. Often, they simply can’t accept another’s experience for what it is.
I have learned that I am not responsible for another’s misunderstanding of my experience. However, as a mental health specialist with lived experience, I have found that I can use my perspective to help and educate others.
If you also have disabilities and mental illness, the following coping mechanisms may help you navigate double discrimination.
This first coping mechanism may be difficult to practice. Speaking out can often be intimidating, but it is important that you have the opportunity to address and condemn discrimination and stigma. One way of speaking out is by telling your story.
There are many avenues to share your story and connect with others who may be going through something similar, such as becoming a presenter for NAMI In Our Own Voice. Having this outlet will also add to the collective discussion around double discrimination and help promote acceptance and understanding.
I find that I commonly view the discrimination I’ve faced as being my fault; that my disabilities and mental illnesses aren’t “that bad” or that I don’t have the right to be considered disabled. But what I try to remember is that these beliefs have been thrust upon me. I am not the problem. My needs matter and I am important just as I am — and so are you. You are not the problem, the pervasive stigma and discrimination in our society is the problem. Give yourself grace and please remember that discrimination is never your fault.
Discrimination can make us feel lesser, and that is a difficult emotional place to navigate. Please take the time to be kind to yourself. Notice any negative self-talk that might arise and try challenging it with affirmations. Some of my favorites are, “My body does not define my worth,” and “My experience is valid.” Try to find some affirmations that you like and write them on sticky notes to put up around your living area where you will see them often. This helps me when I put them on my mirrors, so that the first thing I see when going to look at myself is a positive affirmation.
This process is an effective coping mechanism and critical for changing the conversation surrounding mental illness and disability. If you are being discriminated against, it is important that you know that any form of rights violations is a kind of abuse. If you have questions about whether what your experiencing is a violation of your rights, the Department of Justice operates a toll-free information line to provide information and materials to the public about the requirements of Americans with Disabilities Act.
If your rights are being violated, reporting may be necessary. The NAMI HelpLine can help you to find resources in your area1 to report discrimination.
Sometimes when we experience discrimination, we begin to feel less than, which can lead us to abandon our self-care measures. It is during these times that our self-care is of the utmost importance. Try to make sure that you are practicing self-care, even if that means just keeping up with your hygiene rituals. Even simple things, like going on a walk or talking through how you feel with someone you trust, can help. It’s essential to ensure that you are receiving the care you deserve and that often starts with self-care.
My experience with double discrimination has often taken the form of watching others deny my story and experience, simply because my disabilities and mental illness are “invisible.” Naturally, this left me feeling invalidated. However, I will always remind myself that just because my challenges are invisible to others, they are not any less real. No one has the right to discredit me and negate my experience.
My hopes are that these coping mechanisms encourage you to stand up for yourself and be seen. If adopting these strategies takes time, be kind to yourself; this form of discrimination can be incredibly painful and difficult to work through. You deserve validation and understanding just as much as anyone else.
Ashley Nestler, MSW, is a survivor of schizoaffective disorder, quiet borderline personality disorder, fibromyalgia, bulimia nervosa, obsessive compulsive disorder and Complex PTSD. Ashley is an educator on borderline personality disorder and the creator of Releasing the Phoenix and The Ignite and Rise Academy.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Issue of the Advocate.
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