How To Thrive With Mental Illness
We can empower ourselves and others by sharing our experience
Mental illness touches the lives of every one of us at some point — whether directly or through the experience of a loved one. While much effort is being focused on alleviating the symptoms of mental illness, we also need to understand how to deal with stigma. Stigma can often make life even harder for those already suffering, meaning that many of us fearfully hide our mental illnesses in the secrecy of silence.
But this too can have negative consequences, leading to helplessness and isolation. And research shows that it’s those who take an empowerment approach to stigma who do more than cope with mental illness: they thrive.
The first thing to be understood is that stigma is a social construct; there’s nothing inherently to be feared. Nor are we anything less than beautiful, worthy human beings. Our mind has simply adapted in a certain way to some kind of trauma or chronic stress.
Though we talk about mental “illnesses”, the ongoing symptoms that we experience are the result of changes in physiological functioning, which lead to changes in brain structure and certain genes being switched either on or off — all of which are reversible through changing our environment or our reaction to the stressor(s).
Each mental illness has a different pathology; the first part of overcoming stigma is dealing with our own, getting to know our own condition and how it manifests. This allows us to embrace it; see ourselves as a whole, integrated person. In doing so, we make stigma illegitimate; it cannot hold negative connotations and fear if we see it as an attractive feature in our character.
When it comes to dealing with social stigma, deciding whether or not to talk about how we feel can be difficult. Researcher Nancy Herman identified five levels of disclosure for those with mental illness, and weighed up all the benefits and ramifications of disclosure with focus groups. While she found that there are good reasons not sharing our experience, there are even better reasons why we should.
Though we may avoid judgement, gossip and exclusion by staying silent, it can be socially isolating and worsen fear; our fears become larger than reality.
Breaking the cycle by opening up also allows us to see ourselves as more authentic, improving self-esteem, sense of agency and other aspects of well-being. Our feelings of stigma are also reduced as we are able to identify with others who have experienced or are experiencing mental illness.
Overwhelmingly, researchers have found that the people who choose to share their experiences with mental health empower themselves. Those who take an empowerment approach to stigma thrive despite — or even because of — their mental illness. Do the names Winston Churchill, Dwayne Johnson, Einstein, Gandhi, Beyonce, Martin Luther King Jr., Prince Harry, J.K. Rowling or Abraham Lincoln ring a bell?
The idea of making a public announcement might feel a bit like free-falling from a plane with no instructions; a more gentle way of easing yourself into disclosure while boosting self-esteem and feelings of empowerment is to consider joining an online mental health forum, where we can anonymously discuss our condition without fear of reprobation in everyday life.
It’s not quite as good as the real thing though. Face-to-face disclosure is unquestionably the most effective form of communication for changing attitudes and reducing social distance. Sharing our problems with our loved ones is perhaps the easiest way to find social acceptance, and can bind us even closer.
Once we’ve jumped that hurdle, we may (or equally may not) wish to share a little more publicly. This can help us create a larger supportive social network around us, whilst creating a more united front against stigma. As Brene Brown tells us, daring greatly is the path to leadership — through embracing our own vulnerabilities and so-called imperfections, we show others how to do the same.
But there’s even more to speaking up about mental illness than helping ourselves and others who share our conditoion.
“And Spartacus taught me that all the bad things men do, they do because they are afraid.”
— Varinia, pp. 262, in Spartacus by Howard Fast
And here is a fundamental truth: stigma is born out of the fear of the unknown. The people who are the most likely to stigmatise others are likely the ones most afraid of something that they don’t understand or can’t control. Even for the people who stigmatise mental illness, overcoming fear can be a process that they need guidance through.
It takes all our courage, but by talking about how we feel, we inspire and empower both ourselves and others who are afraid — not only those who have a mental illness but also those who do not. We help them to thrive with us.