This is a very common phrase associated with suicide and mental illness support. But what does it actually mean? What am I saying if I say that I want to stop the stigma?
I think it usually is used as a way to show a desire to help. And that is incredible.
Perhaps we can turn this desire into action if we get clear about what it means to “Stop the Stigma”.
1. Stop isolating “crazy”.
People (like myself) who struggle with mental illnesses often feel completely isolated in this world because we think we are crazy. It is not only our own insecurities that make us think this; I have been told by a wide range of people that I am “crazy”.
What is it about mental health that makes us so uncomfortable? Why do we try so hard to not be associated with the term mentally ill?
Why are we too afraid to be near people when they are bawling their eyes out, having a panic attack?
Or when they come to us and say that they want to kill themselves?
Use your empathy to get close to crazy, even when you feel uncomfortable. Practice hearing things that you find strange, and then accept them. This is one of the closest ways to be a friend: to hear anything the other person has to say without reacting as if they are some strange creature. Try and see an aspect of what they are experiencing within your own experience. Find a commonality between you and the homeless man whispering to his hands so that both of you can feel more connected in this world.
Our desperation to only fill our eyes with perfection cannot be met when we ignore the “crazies”. In fact, it is only when we include each human from the range of sociopath to saint in our eyes that we can truly see the full, beautiful face of humanity. Looking away from the “lesser” or “weird” only serves to cut off our view, and to further separate us from ourselves.
2. Talk about death and darkness.
In order to end the isolation or stigma associated with mentally ill people, we are going to need to get comfortable with talking about the gloomy. Not all the time! I am certainly not suggesting that we dwell there! In fact, I think if we can make the gloomy depressed thoughts a part of daily conversation, interspersed with humour and kindness, then we can start to dispel the clouds they create above people we love.
Avoid the need to only have polite, superficial, gossipy conversations with people due to your own fear of being honest.
Suicidal thoughts and depression consume people – so much so that they usually can’t think about anything else. Things echo and get larger, but this is just because it is all held in the confines of our skulls! Once we can say it out loud, we begin to see it in a new light. If you say “sometimes I want to die” in your mind vs with your voice – they sound very different. Be someone who will not run away or make fun of a person if they describe feelings of hopelessness. And we might just find how common it is to feel dark – how normal it is.
A very important side note here:
As a listener, you must not take on the role of mental health professionals. If a person is having this conversation with you while they are experiencing the depression, then you need to involve professionals. Co dependent relationships can often be created when someone tells their friend that they want to kill themselves, and then that friend keeps this darkness with them as a bond between them. Moreover, it is relatively common for a spouse to threaten suicide if the relationship breaks up. In all of these instances, it is absolutely essential that there are counsellors, doctors, psychiatrists and/or family members involved in the conversation.
3. Get it straight about the attention excuse!
This may be my very biggest pet peeve. I feel so much indignation due to my own experience and other’s that I have witnessed. When you say that someone is “just doing it for attention”, this does not rectify the situation! Congratulations if you are able to articulate the fact that they may be feeling depressed in order to feel empathy and support that they don’t normally feel. But once you realize that, what do you think is the logical thing to do? To somehow punish them out of their neediness by refusing this attention?
Most feelings of hopelessness come from the fact that someone has been isolated in their experience with no proof that the people around them care or understand. If you use the “just doing it for attention” excuse, you may in fact be making it worse by giving them evidence that people in this world really don’t care about them!
Needing attention is a valid reason to feel what you are feeling. And giving attention as a remedy is not always a bad solution. As humans we do not need to use our love and attention like currency – selling it to those who are cool and attractive and can give us something in return. Instead, our love and attention can be filled even more by giving freely to people who ask.
It is key to remember that the giving heart is natural. If you feel that you are stretching yourself like a rubber band to reach out to support and love everyone you can – and this in turn makes your face twist with exhaustion and dread, then your hug may be reaching too wide. We do not need a few people carrying the weight of the world. Instead, if we were all able to simply carry a backpack – just a little bit more than ourselves – then we could accomplish the love and support that the world is asking for. Your group of family and friends are your village in this life, giving energy and time to listen to them is all that is needed.
So please do not be judgemental of yourself in the way that you go about stopping the stigma. Fill yourself with love and attention, and then listen to the opportunities that come to you to help. Begin by changing the language you use with people (“
crazy“), then try staying a little longer in a conversation about darkness until you can understand what it feels like for each of us to live and die here. Contribute to these conversations, create a space of open vulnerability by being honest with your own feelings and fears. And then, remember that in most things we do we are just asking for attention. So if you find yourself refusing it simply because you think that “will teach them”, then please look again with clear compassionate eyes.
The mental illness situation is urgent, start small so that you start at all.
A very useful link on this topic: Mental Illness Happy Hour