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How the Mental Health Stigma Affects Supporters

By now, we've all heard the rally cries to "end the stigma" surrounding mental illness.


And while there is a stigma that surrounds mental illness sufferers, what I realized during this journey is that the stigma also affects their supporters - sometimes in ways that are unexpected.


A lot of the ways the stigma affects supporters has to do with how others perceive the issue. "Others" meaning our friends and family who are more removed from the situation. Now, before I go on, I just want to make it clear that not everyone will understand. And that's okay. They don't have to. Their willingness to understand is none of your business.


However, humans are social beings who want to be understood, so it makes sense that how others perceive our situation will probably be important to us. The problem is that our desire to be understood can also cause our own suffering when others don't understand.


Some ways that the perception of others affects a supporter include:

  • not wanting others judging our loved one or thinking they're "crazy" if others don't understand

  • not wanting others to think we're gossiping about the sufferer, or sharing information that isn't yours to share

  • not wanting others to dismiss your struggle just because "you're not the one suffering"

  • not wanting others to say "it's not about you"

I'm going to break down each of these a little more.


I didn't want other people to judge Nick or think he was "crazy". I was trying to protect him from the shame associated with his mental illness. What I didn't realize was that my "protection" was only perpetuating the shame (and stigma) by staying silent. Not only was it perpetuating the stigma, but I was also "protecting" him to my own detriment. Eventually, my silence started to negatively impact my own mental health.


I also didn't like getting the following reactions: "I don't understand why he can't just act normal", or, "I don't understand why he can't suck it up", or "I don't understand why he can't just think about something else". A lot of the time, it seemed like these comments were used to get the person off-the-hook not understanding the situation. They didn't want to understand, so they used "I don't understand why..." as their way out. Other times, it felt like these comments were used, once again, to place judgement on Nick. These comments were frustrating. And because they were often rooted in judgement, they also made me feel defensive on Nick's behalf.


For a long time, I didn't think Nick's struggles were my "business" to share. But, eventually I realized that his story impacted my story, so it was my "business" to share. Additionally, if Nick had been diagnosed with a physical condition, like cancer, people would think it was my "business" to share. In fact, my close friends and family would probably be insulted if I didn't share it with them. Somehow, I (and many others) thought this was different simply because this was a mental illness instead of a physical one. Before I had this realization, though, I thought that if I shared my experience with other people, that I would be seen as "gossiping" about my own husband. What I also hadn't realized yet was that I had very little control over whether or not people would think that. If they perceived me as a gossip as opposed to someone who was trying to look for support, there was nothing I could do about that. They simply weren't going to be part of my support system.


Another thing I realized I was doing was something called comparative suffering. In other words, I was discounting my own experience simply because Nick's experience was "worse". I also didn't want others to discount my own experience because Nick was "suffering more" than me. However, if we return to the cancer example, people wouldn't have compared our suffering and said one of us had it worse than the other. Nobody would have said "you shouldn't complain because he's the one with cancer". Nobody would have said "this isn't about you". So why is it different with mental illness? I've received the "this isn't about you" comment multiple times since starting this blog. My new response? Yes. It is about me. It's just "about me" in a different way than it is about Nick. Instead of looking at one situation as worse than the other, I look at the situations as difficult in different ways.


At the root of the mental illness stigma is shame. The shameful underpinning is what keeps mental illness sufferers, and their supporters, silent. It is my belief that until we realize which reactions to mental illness are rooted in shame, this stigma will continue. Unless we address the many ways this shame presents itself, we will continue to struggle to "end the stigma".

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Bob Sikorski
Bob Sikorski
26 jul 2022

Another amazing and thought provoking post! Thank you for sharing your journey and helping to illuminate this topic!

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