Having a mental illness is a challenge that countless people experience in their lifetimes. Some are lucky enough to find peace with their disorder, potentially including a medication regimen that works for them. Others never find solace, and many are unfortunately lost to suicide. But I feel there is always hope, especially when communities understand what the world is like when you have mental illness.
My own world changed drastically when I was first admitted to the psychiatric ward in 2005 and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My heart sank, and my mind told me that I had a horrific and bleak future ahead of me. It took years to heal from the self-stigma I experienced thereafter, as well as the stigma I felt from others. Not only did I feel different, but I was treated differently by many people, including friends, family and even complete strangers.
I no longer felt like Andrea. However, I began to find myself again and put my shattered pieces back together as the years passed. In time, I was able to accomplish meaningful goals and live a full life with loving relationships and authentic happiness. I have learned a lot along the way over the past 15 years. I share daily about the fact that I have bipolar disorder, and it is now my mission to educate others about this condition and mental illness in general.
Here are a few thoughts that I hope will shed some light on the topic of mental illness and help as many people as possible understand it.
Stop using stigmatizing language
Language is important. I always ask people to please not refer to a psych hospital or treatment facility as the “nut house,” “crazy asylum” or “loony bin.” It makes so many of us with mental illness feel hurt to know that others would rather make fun of our condition than support us in getting help.
Language used around mental illness is offensive in other ways, too. The word “crazy” gets tossed around so much that it can feel inescapable, and I sometimes don’t have the courage to admit that it bothers me. Not all people with mental illness have a problem with this type of language, but many do. It is not about being politically correct — it’s about being respectful.
Understand that mental illness is not related to competence
I missed work a number of times during my six-year tenure at a job where I had a stigmatizing boss. Work can be a scary place for people who have a mental illness, especially when your managers or co-workers treat you as incapable or unintelligent. I am still shocked that my boss felt this way about me — she and I previously held the same position and I was just as qualified as she was for the job. However, she made it clear that she thought I was entirely incompetent, and my condition further deteriorated.
People with mental illness want their employers and the people around them to know that they are capable of thriving in a meaningful job, even if that includes taking absences from work or requesting accommodations. No one’s capability is questioned when they return to work after a physical issue, such as a heart attack, or injuries from a car accident. Even if I never return, I hope you will not consider me a failure. That is just how life happens sometimes.
Know that we don’t want to be left alone
There are multiple ways to support someone who has a mental illness, but the best advice I can offer is to just listen to them. It is that simple. Many people don’t want tons of overwhelming advice on all the community organizations and government services that support people like them. Maybe leave a pamphlet behind, but don’t tell them what they should do.
People with mental illness often just want their loved ones to be there. I personally love having someone there with me, even if I don’t want to talk. A warm hug can help ease the dreariest moments. Many think that people who have mental illness just want to be left alone, but this is often the furthest thing from the truth. If you are making this assumption without evidence, you are quite possibly mistaken.
Recognize that everyone’s recovery is different
It is imperative to know that recovery looks very different for every single person with mental illness. Some people can sustain employment and others may never work again. Some people may eventually develop deep and intimate relationships, while others may feel so much pain that this is not a possibility. Some will travel overseas and others may find it impossible to leave the house. All of these realities are okay. We all just have to meet people where they are.
I speak from my own experience, but I have been around a lot of people with various disorders over the past 15 years who share similar beliefs and viewpoints. I continue to embrace the idea that no matter what our challenges, we can all live extraordinary lives. This may look different for everyone, but it is important to keep in mind that simply surviving mental illness is a truly extraordinary accomplishment.
Andrea Paquette is Co-Founder and President of the Stigma-Free Society, and she is also known as the Bipolar Babe, which is related to her first mental health project in 2009. She is a mental health speaker, published author, change-maker, advocate and above all a Stigma Stomper. She is grateful for having the opportunity to share her personal message that “No matter what our challenges, we can all live extraordinary lives.” Feel free to visit her charity’s website: www.stigmafreesociety.com. Twitter: @Bipolar_Babe Instagram: @bipolarbabe