The word stigma wasn’t part of my daily life until a few months ago. After a long, silent struggle with undiagnosed depression and anxiety receiving the diagnosis seemed like a blessing: I would finally get my answers about what had been off for the majority of my life. But what came with the diagnosis was something that I hadn’t foreseen. I had never considered the stigma behind mental illnesses and how they affect the recovery process. I assumed that once one was diagnosed that was that and they begin their recovery. But, stigma plays a much larger role than many think in one’s recovery from mental illnesses.
Stigma is, according to dictionary.com, “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” Although we as a whole are much more educated about mental illnesses than we were twenty years ago, there is still an innate stigma that surrounds those who suffer from one or more illness. This is due, in part, to how people with mental illnesses are portrayed in movies and literature. Often they are shown as crazy, so unstable to the point where they will hurt others. Less often does it show what the majority feel: a weight on our chests or backs that never goes away and follows us wherever we go. A dullness when others feel happiness. The feeling of never being good enough no matter how hard we try. We are not dangerous to others, but to ourselves.
I often find myself sitting in presentations given by the counseling center here at Gustavus. They frequently visit classes and were a staple of our orientation weekend. I have heard everything they have to say before, over and over and over times ten. Whenever we break off for small discussions after these presentations I want to speak up about my own personal experience, but often find myself hesitating. What will these potential friends think when they find out I have depression and anxiety? They’ll think I’m crazy because I take medication to curb it. I made a promise to myself after I was diagnosed that I wouldn’t let moments like these go by without capitalizing on them by educating those around me about the realities of a mental illness. To give depression and anxiety a real face to them, rather than the almost mythical person they have in their mind. Typically I am pleasantly surprised when I decide to speak up about my struggles. They often ask respectful questions and probe to learn more–so that they can understand the truth rather than the stigma.
What I have learned about speaking out about my own struggles is that those surrounding us are curious, they want to learn more. They want to help. By sharing our stories we can help take down the stigma that often boxes us in. And when that day comes, if it does, we can say we had a part in it.