I witnessed stigma in the making today.


Today I had the opportunity to attend a lunch n’ learn on bipolar disorder.  The gentleman presenting was a clinical psychologist who I have known from being on a working group together.  He is a very nice man.  However, today I witnessed one of the things that contribute to the stigma of mental illness in an astounding way.

His talk started out very informative about bipolar disorder signs and symptoms.  He explained really well about mania, depression and everything in between.  But then the whole talk took a downward turn.  He started sharing six stories about people he had involuntarily committed.  If the story had been told from a factual standpoint on how people with bipolar disorder can put themselves at risk, I would have been fine with it.  Except the stories told were laughed at and even the audience laughed as well.  At one point a YouTube Video was shown of a man who said he was experiencing a manic episode.  It was over the top.

I guess you had to be there to really understand my perspective.  I did not want to be rude and get up and leave, so I sat through a very painful hour of stigmatizing people with mental illness as crazy, looney and psycho with no hope for recovery.  At one point I considered raising my hand and saying, “I am one of those bipolar type I patients who have recovered.  What can you say about me?”  I decided against that strategy.

What I did do is tell the organizer who joked about having a manic episode based on all the criteria he just learned that the talk needed to be more balanced.  Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who run naked in neighborhoods.  Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who are homeless.  But there is also another side.  These people are someone’s wife, husband, friend, daughter, son, brother, sister etc.  .

Rather than embarrass the speaker I decided to have a private conversation with him at the end.  I said to him, “I have bipolar disorder type I.  Did you know that?”  “No I didn’t know that,” he said rather surprised.  And then I said, “I have my own sensational stories.  But I am also an Olympian, have a master’s degree and have worked in Corporate America for many years.  And by the way, people do recover.”

I think he was shocked that I said that to him.  Of course I was very diplomatic, but it really struck a cord with me.  I will have the opportunity to speak with this audience in March.  I plan to spend a great deal of time talking about stigma.  I hope what I say will help repair some of the damage that was done today.

What to do after a mental illness diagnosis 

No one wants to hear those words you have an illness.  But outside of cancer there are few diagnosis that trump a mental illness label.  It can be very depressing.  So now that you have it -what do you do next?

Here are some common answers to that question:

1.  Deny it.  Belief the doctor or therapist is wrong and you are perfectly healthy.  It is everyone else who has the problem.

2.  Cry.  It is a sad day to get told something is not quite right and that maybe you will need medications for the rest of your life.  That’s no fun to hear.  Grab a box of tissues and let it all sink in.

3. Rejoice.  Well a little dramatic but if you were looking for something to explain how you thought or felt or acted and now all of a sudden things made sense that’s a pretty good day.

4.  Question.  Is the doctor right?  Get a second opinion.

5. Accept it and start learning how to recognize warning signs of the illness.  Become a student and learn everything you can so you manage the illness and it does not manage you.

6.  Ignore it.  Pretend as if the doctor has not just told you you have a severe mental illness and you will need treatment most likely for the rest of your life.

In my personal journey I have done each one of those responses.  #6 is by far the worst choice in my personal experience.  But I do understand all the choices and know everyone has their own reasons for choosing how they react and deal with it.

No matter where you are in your process think about what worked the best for you.   In the end #5 gave me my life back.  It is my choice and recommendation for others confronted with this challenge.