The Stigma of Mental Illness

“What stigma?” I hear and read this everywhere.

Sure, it looks like we’ve made a lot of progress in destigmatizing mental illnesses, and thankfully we have made some progress –but mostly we’ve just made progress destigmatizing introversion, perfectionism, and general quirkiness.

It’s not hard to say, “Ugh, my OCD is so annoyed by your closet right now.” Liking an organized closet never really had a stigma anyway.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that introversion is finally being understood, but introversion is NOT social anxiety. And social anxiety, real social anxiety, still has a stigma.

So what IS social anxiety then? What IS OCD really? What’s a mood disorder?

I can tell you right now what they aren’t: funny quirks.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on these things, nor will I pretend to know what it’s like for every person who suffers from these. But I can draw on my own experiences and give you a general idea of what these illnesses are really like.

Social anxiety doesn’t differentiate between introverts and extroverts. A socially anxious person may crave social interaction, but be paralyzed by it at the same time. Social anxiety is an irrational fear of interaction. It’s not just, “I’d rather stay in with a good book and blow off that party,” it’s “I want to go to the party, I should go to the party, but if I go what will everyone think? What will happen? What if no one talks to me? What if someone talks to me? I shouldn’t go, I’ll just humiliate myself. But how do I say no, I don’t want to call them. I don’t want to text them. What if I hurt their feelings? What if they’re mad at me and hate me?” While irrational, these fears are very REAL and very terrifying. What happens if someone with social anxiety makes it to a party or social gathering? Well, they may end up hiding in the bathroom having a panic attack. Or they may leave after just a few minutes. If they’re getting treatment, they may be silently and invisibly conquering their greatest battle while you casually ask them to pass the dip.

And OCD? OCD is not needing everything color coordinated and perfectly lined up. I don’t even know where that stereotype came from. Maybe from the commonly referenced compulsion to clean that sometimes occurs with OCD? I don’t know. But lining things up isn’t OCD. OCD is much more difficult than perfectionism to live with –I can say that because I’m a perfectionist who has also had temporary OCD (post partum OCD). A perfectionist may have some anxiety if their kitchen isn’t 100% neatly ordered and spotless, but as soon as it is, they find peace. Not so with OCD. Someone with OCD will irrationally feel compelled to scrub the kitchen sink over and over, several times, despite knowing scrubbing it again won’t do anything different. They HAVE to anyway. And they know it’s irrational, and that’s the worst part, because then you’re sitting there thinking, “what is WRONG with me?” And lest we forget, OCD isn’t just made up of compulsions. Compulsions are simply a coping mechanism for the real issue: the obsessions. Like obsessing that the germs in the kitchen sink are going to kill your child (I just want you to see where this cleaning stereotype comes from, but this is by far not the only form OCD comes in). Obsessive thoughts aren’t the same as racing thoughts that keep you up at night, although that is difficult to deal with, and can be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. OCD is a different kind of anxiety disorder, and the thoughts are all consuming and plaguing. They’re often terrifying, like that lifelike nightmare you had as a kid and never forgot. They can be violent, tragic, gory… they’re the kind of thoughts that make a person wonder if they’re a good person. And that’s part of what makes it so hard for someone with OCD to separate themselves from their illness, and remember that they ARE still a good person. These thoughts, these obsessions, often can only subside when the compulsion is completed.

When people really understand what these are, they pass judgement. They see those who suffer as different, maybe even weak or unstable. I don’t know about you, but anyone who suffers from OCD is a hero in my book. And stronger emotionally than anyone can know. People with mental illnesses are forced to learn emotional and life skills just to function every day, skills EVERYONE could benefit from, but only some are compelled to. So then I ask you, who REALLY is more emotionally stable? Because going to therapy is literally taking lessons in emotional stability.

I don’t want to get into mood disorders. Why? Honestly because the stigma is even worse for them. And personality disorders? I can’t even pretend to understand them at all, so I can’t speak to their stigma, though they are stigmatized worse than any other.

All I will say is, I once stigmatized mood disorders myself. I didn’t even realize I did, but I did. And now I have to ask myself, sincerely, if I am passing judgement, or choosing compassion.

Because mental illnesses are so misunderstood. So misrepresented. And yes, they are still stigmatized. From a passing remark about emotional stability to a barking insult online saying a woman with bipolar shouldn’t reproduce, mental illness still has the stigma.

And I wish I could say I’ve battled the stigma and won. And maybe once I did. But stigma has thrown a new one at me that I am unsure how to handle. And anxiety constantly has me worrying, “what will they think? What will they say? Who do I come across as now, and will that all change the moment I choose to be vulnerable?”

I’ll get back to you when I’ve figured this one out.


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