Mental Illness and The Intersections Of Stigma
I have probably been tweeting just a bit too much about Bass Coast, an annual EDM (Electronic Dance Music) festival over the last month or so. It bears repeating, however, that it was an amazing time in a wonderfully inclusive atmosphere. Life in Vancouver can be somewhat isolating, to the point that I had more conversations with strangers in a few days than I have had in the past 8 months.
It was this drastic juxtaposition of social environments, the absence of judgement and safe environment to be open that led me to start writing this piece. Overall, my intention in attending was not to just have a memorable weekend, but also have a life changing experience. To avoid having the experience of these magical few days just disappear in the ether of Real Life, I decided to write about something that is at the same time very personal and very uncomfortable.
The atmosphere of Bass Coast was, for the most part, one that accepted those that mainstream society might stigmatize for not being 'normal'. That same kind of stigma touches many segments of society, from those who choose to use illicit substances, the homeless, the marginalized, and many others.
Personal development is often characterized by periods of discomfort and vulnerability before that highly sought after personal growth actually happens. As a sheltered office worker and expert in being Very Online, disconnecting (to some degree) for four days and interacting with people who live a very different life than I do was certainly uncomfortable at times, but I think it did result in some small measure of that growth. So I've decided to bare another uncomfortable truth, something you might already have deduced if you read between the lines of some of my social media posts.
I suffer from mental illness. The discomfort in typing these six words is definitely more than I felt during this entire past weekend put together. And yet, it is undoubtedly less than those in less accepting communities and situations face in deciding to be public about their struggles. It is the stigma of mental illness, often referred to as an ‘invisible illness’ that I’d like to help dismantle.
So, stigma. There are many forms it takes when it comes to mental illness, and I've found the compulsion to be as 'high functioning' as possible, the most powerful. Or to put it another way, to be good enough / successful enough that you are just viewed as eccentric rather than weird and on the fringes of what’s socially acceptable. I'm happy to say I think most of my social circle embraces weirdness, so this is again an area that I have far less to fear than those in less sympathetic situations.
There are the inevitable comparisons with physical disabilities, which come with their own intersections of stigma. The stigma around mental illness can be just as strong, harder to reveal and engender far more negative reactions.
For example, I am deaf in my right ear. This also fits into the category of ‘invisible illness’, but it is generally an easier secret to reveal, and I have never felt ostracized by those who are aware. If anything, I have found people to be sympathetic and more than willing to make themselves easier to hear. On all counts, the same has not been true for disclosing that I suffer from mental illness.
Context is king, and for the stigma behind mental illness, the context is historical. I've written previously on the horror show that was the practice of lobotomy, and in some ways it is a perfect microcosm of the stigma those with mental illness faced in the past during the height of 'sanitarium' style mental institutions. Those that society had written off were used as test subjects due to the entirety of medicine failing them, test subjects that some might argue had no capacity to give informed consent.
Reagan has received much criticism over eventually leading the charge to ‘de-institutionalization’, or closing state-run mental hospitals. This policy has been widely regarded as a failure, both during the 80’s and more recently. Mental hospitals were no utopia however. Severely ill patients were often relegated to ‘problem’ wards, and treatment could be weaponized against vulnerable individuals. For example: Walter Friedman, the inventor of the trans-orbital lobotomy, once performed this procedure on a patient referred by his stepmother due to such grave transgressions as wearing a sweater on hot days and sleeping with the lights on.
There is no question that mental illness also intersects with many other areas of societal stigma. Those suffering from mental illness find over-representation in both the homeless and jailed populations. Addiction issues can also be fed by mental illness, and there's no better example than the assertion that those who are addicted, bring their misery on themselves and 'deserve' their situation in some way.
The current ideological rhetoric against Supervised Consumption Sites (SCS) sees this thinly veiled with statements that characterize SCS as enabling those considered 'lesser than' the rest of society willfully choosing to consume dangerous substances. You have undoubtedly seen these statements on social media and news articles, however, I will not repeat them here verbatim as I find them deeply offensive and dehumanizing.
Even for those that might be considered 'high-functioning', mental illness can be a constant struggle and impact daily life in very profound and negative ways. For example, social anxiety disorder can make forming peer groups exceptionally difficult, and the consequences reach far beyond having a healthy degree of social contact. Forming study groups is an exceptionally good way to prepare for the academic rigour of post-secondary life but anxiety disorders can isolate students from being able to gain entry into them.
Suffering from mental illness also presents problems in the workplace for those that are able to find steady employment. If their condition interferes with their job duties an employee can ask for reasonable accommodations, such as flexible hours or remote work. You would generally not hesitate to inform your employer about a physical disability and request related accommodations, however those suffering from mental illness are often advised to 'carefully consider' whether to reveal their condition for possible retaliation or constructive dismissal actions.
Even for those who are high-functioning, these consequences which are very much rooted in stigma can easily happen. Earlier in my career, I saw job duties curtailed and responsibilities reassigned even though my disclosure involved statements from medical professionals that my illness was well managed, so the aforementioned advice is definitely not given without reason.
In addition to academic and professional repercussions, there are also social consequences to consider. An admission of mental illness may cause friends and family to distance themselves, and rumours to spread in small communities. Mental illness has been used as a reason to deny US citizens the right to own firearms, and disclosing mental illness can make physicians more hesitant to recommend or prescribe medical cannabis.
There are also consequences for those suffering from mental illness who get caught up in the criminal justice system. The Non Criminally Responsible (NCR) verdict of some cases has been controversial with the public and politicians, with such as the case of Vincent Li and the recent flight of an individual in Toronto . I reference these cases not to pronounce judgement but to illustrate that the treatment of the mentally ill in the justice system is often treated as a political football. The Harper government passed a law which ignored expert opinion and advice in favour of a ‘tough on crime’ approach.
Possibly worse than all of the above is how those suffering from mental illness are stigmatized in immigration processes. The US is not exactly the most friendly place to those who work in the cannabis industry, but by merely writing this post, I may be denied entry to the US unless I receive documentation from one of three doctors in all of Canada.
Going back to the concept of privilege, it does seem to be easier to let the secret out the more well off you might be. Robin Williams and Carrie Fisher are two of the most well known celebrities who suffered from mental illness, and it does stand to reason that being financially secure makes it a bit easier to announce something that carries incredible stigma with it. Being open about their struggles did help the process of 'normalization', but did so in a way that made that normalization inaccessible to those without a certain level of financial security.
Beyond all of this context, the symptoms of mental illness themselves are bad enough. They can be debilitating, sometimes confining sufferers to their beds or homes for long periods of time. They are also socially isolating, often sufferers will reject invites to social events and have to come up with some form of excuse so as to not offend their social circle.
So what's the point of this post? Beyond some degree of catharsis, it's to say that you shouldn't feel ashamed if you suffer from some form of mental illness, and you are no less of a person than anyone else. In the same way that the average person consuming cannabis publicly is helping to de-stigmatize its usage, so will being open about mental illness (even if you aren't a celebrity).