The journey of recovery is tough for those dealing with mental health issues. It is made even harder by social stigma brought about by uninformed people who label a person’s symptoms as “strange”, “scary”, or as “acting out”.
“There was nothing more depressing than being told that all the teachers were waiting for me to quit school”, Nora*, now a university student, related. “They just did not know how to deal with people like me”.
Nora was dealing with a depressive disorder. Her teachers, having little awareness of what this entailed, stigmatized her as someone whose behaviours they were uncomfortable with.
Unfortunately, societal stigma around mental illness is very much prevalent in Singapore. Nine in ten believe that those inflicted “could get better if they wanted to”, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health.
Public discrimination and prejudice are just the tip of the iceberg. When this stigma is internalized, young people like Nora begin to believe that the perception of others is actually the truth about themselves. Fearing ridicule and judgment, many youngsters stop themselves from reaching out to seek help.
However, the first step to recovery is for the seeker to unlearn the painful hatred that has been unwittingly directed onto oneself.
You are separate from your illness
The person and the illness – the two are often confused. The latter does not define who you are; your illness is like a visitor. For some, it is a one-time visit, for others it is recurring. Sometimes it stays beyond its ‘welcome’ duration, but it is still a visitor, even if the stigma spread by society would have you believe otherwise.
“You are not your illness. You have an individual story to tell. You have a name, a history, a personality. Staying yourself is part of the battle”.
Seeing yourself as a separate entity from this visitor and the chaos it brings will go a long way in unfurling this ribbon of self-hatred. You may not even realize it, but even the way in which you refer to your illness, “I have bipolar disorder” versus “I am bipolar” makes a difference.
Inviting Mara to Tea
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Your support system
By keeping your illness a secret, you are subconsciously acknowledging that you are ashamed of it. When you share your situation with your trusted friends and family members, their acceptance will ease your suffering and the fear of being “found out”.
Of course, not everyone in your immediate circle might understand, but it is not your fault if they do not. The more important thing is not to let their lack of understanding hold power over you.
Research has shown that it encourages people to regain a sense of power over their lives, and being open to talking about their illness is related to reduced self-stigmatization (Corrigan & Rao, 2012).
“You have to keep choosing recovery, over and over again. You have to make that choice 5-6 times each day.”
Author of “Wasted”
Reinventing Your Perception
The path to recovery has to be sought every day, but this journey can transform the person you are. Nora, for instance, feels that her hard-won victory over her depressive disorder has given her “unparalleled resilience” compared to other youths her age.
Everyone has their own perceptions and coping mechanisms when it comes to mental illness. However, by focusing on what is going right and changing the way you perceive your illness, you can definitely direct your journey towards recovery and wellbeing.
Developing mental strength
Anyone is susceptible to mental illness. For those who have adapted their body and mind to function under duress, and ultimately overcome their mental illnesses — it is an unmistakable demonstration of personal strength and resilience that has been forged in the face of adversities. It will serve anyone well in the long run.