Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

When you hear the words “mentally ill” what’s the first thing that pops into your head? I bet for most of you it wasn’t a friend, neighbour or colleague but someone violent, scary or strange, possibly in a straitjacket or shuffling around like a zombie because of medication. And yet at any given time 1 in 4 people are likely to suffer from some kind of mental illness. So why is there still such a stigma about it? Why the stereotypes and ignorance?

It’s a complex issue but I think that it may be partly due to unease that our ‘sense of self’ can so easily be altered. We humans live inside our heads and have a self-awareness that is unique. We are acutely aware of who we are and our place within a group, and yet mental illness can alter that ‘self’ very easily. This makes people uncomfortable. And when something makes people uncomfortable they often seek to distance themselves from it.

There’s also the problem that mental illness isn’t easily fixed the way a broken leg can be. The human mind is unbelievably complicated and we are still only beginning to understand how it works. A common misconception about mental illness is that the sufferer should just snap out of it, switch it off, that they’re seeking attention. But who would dream of saying such things to someone with diabetes or kidney disease? Physical illness attracts sympathy; mental illness often merely attracts impatience and scorn, as though it is a sign of weakness. Anti-depressants are often demonised as being addictive and handed out far too easily by doctors. But strangely few people would make the same criticisms about painkillers, which are often available over the counter instead of by prescription.

The media is also partly responsible for the ignorance and stereotypes surrounding mental illness. I can think of very few films or programmes where a person with mental illness is portrayed sympathetically. It’s all too common to have the violent murderer, the weird loner or the crazy kidnapper. It’s not just fictional media of course, the news media is just as bad. A common incidence is when a violent or terrible crime has been committed (parents killing children for example) and the journalists will ask “Were they depressed?”, “Was there any history of mental illness?”. Now, of course people with mental illness commit crimes. People without mental illness also commit crimes. But the way that the media glibly imply that only someone who is mentally ill could do such a thing infuriates me. I’ve been mentally ill for most of my life and the most criminal thing I’ve ever done is accidentally run a red light.

Talking to friends and family about mental illness is difficult. Some will be sympathetic and understanding; some will be sympathetic but won’t understand. And of course there are those who withdraw from you as a result. Membership of the matter group isn’t always due to ignorance either, I lost a very close and trusted friend when I had PND after the birth of my daughter. This friend had also had PND previously but couldn’t cope with me struggling for so long and withdrew from me.

It takes a lot of courage to be open about mental illness. I don’t mean online – I’m very open about my problems here. But I tend to hide it as much as I can from people I know in real life. I don’t want them to look at me differently; I don’t want them to see me as a diagnosis first and a person second. I don’t want to lose any more friends. And yet there are those who know and are extremely supportive. My husband, my mother and sister, 3 friends whom I can talk to honestly about absolutely anything and know that they will still be there.

The more open we are about mental illness the less stigma there will be. But in order to be open we must run the gauntlet of that stigma, of being branded as ‘other’. It’s a difficult cycle to break but I am trying – I am starting to be more open about my problems and so far it’s been ok. No-one’s run away screaming yet. 😉

(This post was inspired by the Time To Change campaign).


Comments on: "Stigma (n.): from Latin ‘stigma’ meaning to mark or brand" (6)

  1. brilliant read – thank you sharing – it’s always a difficult thing for people to admit openly especially if they feel they will be judged for it. I look forward to reading more 🙂

  2. markrobotarm said:

    Thoughtful and insightful piece. One which I can understand completely.

    I’m bipolar. Went undiagnosed for years, including time spent in the army when certain experiences only exacerbated the issue. Back then, I’d self-medicate. Booze. Lots of it. But then, that was the culture. Probably still do drink too much, but I’m getting better. At the not drinking as much, at least.

    It was only after I left that I was diagnosed after things got progressively worse. I try to talk about it more openly now, but still struggle. I’m a big, daft, Northern ex-squaddie who plays rugby. Folk like me barely do feelings. As for mental illness? Happens to other people. Except it doesn’t.

    I don’t define myself by my mental illness. I don’t think many people do. But, when I come across people spouting ill-informed or judgemental rhetoric about it, I’ll challenge them on it and confess to my own struggles.

    Of course, the ex-Forces thing mitigates the worst aspects. The Daily Mail types who would gladly deride such mental illness as symptomatic of a cosseted populace, change their tune when it’s one of “our brave boys” who is suffering.

    I don’t really know what point I’m trying to make. Just confirming that it does cross all divides, I suppose.

    • I think you make a really good point Mark. A common stereotype of mental illness is that it’s a sign of weakness but then people struggle when the person suffering is someone like you, who obviously doesn’t fit the stereotype. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been before you were diagnosed.

      • markrobotarm said:

        Actually, there was only really one year where it was a problem. But, if it hadn’t become so, I wouldn’t have reached the point where I went to see a GP who, thankfully, referred me to a mental health specialist.
        In the army, a lot of it went unnoticed. Exercise, as it turns out, helps me. It stabilises my moods. And there was a lot of that to be had. But the highs – and the behaviours associated with them – could often be written off as the kind of thing that young(ish) soldiers would do, anyway. The lows? Well, that was simply assumed to be PTSD, having spent time in Iraq (first time round), the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as part of a very small and discreet British presence.
        It was only on Civvy Street that my problems really became apparent. And that makes me wonder just how many other soldiers, sailors and airmen are serving, with mental health issues? And whether – if they’re good at what they do – it matters?

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