I Am Bipolar: Battling the Stigma of Mental Illness

by August 1, 2012
filed under Life

It’s difficult to pinpoint where to even begin. Mental illness is something everyone knows about, and affects the great majority of people on this planet either directly or indirectly, yet it is still such a difficult subject to discuss. It’s not as though it is physically difficult to speak the words “I suffer from clinical depression” or “I have Borderline Personality Disorder,” yet how often is this heard? Modern western society is characterized by a reluctance to openly share personal struggles, whether the issues are economic or have to do with health. Yet people would sooner discuss the details of a messy divorce or the symptoms of their physical ailment than they would a naturally occurring chemical imbalance.

Despite the astounding progress made in the field of psychology since the 19th century, mental health remains a largely taboo subject in society. Historically speaking, it has usually been more beneficial to keep one’s problems to oneself if possible, or else risk treatment that would be considered torture and imprisonment by modern standards. It is not as though the media helps either. Most often when a character in a television show or a film suffers from a mental disorder, it is their sole defining quality. Take the mostly absent mother Monica from the American version of the British series Shameless. She’s impulsive, selfish and lacking in the necessary self-awareness to be a responsible parent. Monica suffers from bipolar disorder, which is used to explain all her actions and shape the foundation of her character. She’s not a person, she’s a label. A stereotype. Also often seen is mental illness as the root cause for an antagonist’s cruel behaviour, as if it is clearly the source of evil. But what if the protagonist is the one who suffers from mental illness? Is such a thing even seen in the media?

Alternatively, to even be taken seriously by a doctor and get treatment there are a lot of hoops to jump through. There’s also no guarantee that help will be given, that it is financially feasible or that a consistent diagnosis and treatment plan can be found. More often than you would think, people choose to self-diagnose and self-medicate (in ways that can help or worsen symptoms) in order to avoid the whole frustrating process. For all the complaining I hear about the western world being over-medicated and over-diagnosed, I don’t hear enough from the people who need help and have been largely ignored by the medical community. It almost seems that it is easier to keep silent about such issues, and society overall is a more than willing accomplice.

To use a well-known yet powerful cliché: The silence is deafening. Nobody asks to be mentally ill. No one has a say in their genetic makeup. The least we can do is acknowledge the existence of mental illness, and the human beings who have to deal with it every day. It is time that people who suffer from mental disorders are treated as complex human beings with multiple dimensions to their lives, and not as a label. The doctors who are there to help should not take the guilty until proven innocent (or exaggerating until proven help-worthy) approach to treating those who claim to have psychological issues. This perspective change sounds simple enough. But if that were the case it wouldn’t be so common to hear something dismissive along the lines of, “well, he’s just crazy.” A cultural acceptance of the unavoidable prevalence of mental illness would change the lives of millions.

This is an issue I take very seriously. Many of my family members have been diagnosed with a range of mental illnesses, as well as quite a few of my close friends. Mental health has been an ever-present concern in my life. Yet it goes beyond a preoccupation with the wellbeing of my loved ones. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 17, and have been struggling to come to terms with what this means for my life ever since.

I have experienced both the types of discrimination I just discussed. I have witnessed the entirety of someone’s tone and body language towards me change when I tell them I am bipolar. Suddenly I stop being Athena and I become something unusual, unnerving and even dangerous or contagious. I hadn’t changed in any way from the person they enjoyed talking to only a few minutes earlier. Yet I almost felt as though I had, just from the look in their eyes.

On the other hand, I have had doctors barely veil their skepticism when I try to tell them I need help. Yes, I am an honours student and married, but I am also bipolar. Does being successful mean that I am not mentally ill? Are my coping techniques too effective to warrant aid? I know the high rate of people with bipolar disorder who are incapable of leading normal lives. I’m aware of the depressing large percentage of bipolar sufferers who commit suicide. I’ve done my homework. I know the symptoms, I know my family history, I know myself. Just because I have found ways to thrive despite my disorder doesn’t mean that I haven’t felt low, hopeless and incapable of going on.

I shouldn’t have to experience any more difficulty explaining to someone that I am bipolar, and have this accepted, any more than telling them I have asthma. Nonetheless, here I am, reluctant to even write this piece because I know I am putting myself out there in a way I can’t take back. But I want to stand up for mental health, and I want to be an advocate for fair treatment.

What I hope all this accomplishes is to prove that mental health is a spectrum. Recently bipolar disorder is not being examined as a rigid illness with specific symptoms, but rather a spectrum encompassing many aspects and levels of severity. You don’t have to be foaming at the mouth to qualify as mentally ill, and psychological issues do not discount you as a more or less regular human being. The range of human emotion, state of being and ability is not simply black and white, so why would mental health be? I am bipolar, and I almost never ask anyone to cut me any slack despite the fact that I have to work twice as hard at some things that people never even consider. All I ask for is acceptance, and the support I deserve. I hope the day comes where everyone suffering from mental illness can expect the same.

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