In case you are unaware, January 27, 2016 was #BellLetsTalk day – an initiative aimed at bringing an end to the stigma against mental illness by promoting conversations and awareness. When I last checked on Twitter, I was heartened to see that they have raised over 6 million dollars this year. Yes, I was totally one of those people that spent a good portion of my day retweeting posts with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and creating posts of my own. I cross my fingers that you retweeted a few things too. I also spent a chunk of my day in reflection about my experiences with stigma.
When I was struggling with my own anxiety issues, I regularly encountered judgment, minimizing, and avoidance from my family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. I naively thought that my days of dealing with stigma were over once I made the decision to just unashamedly be an open book about my struggles with panic and anxiety. I had dropped the anger, the shame, the embarrassment, the hiding…I had moved forward, made changes, and learned how to maintain my well-being. Hell, I even felt strong enough to completely face myself and my “flaws” in order to become a helper for others facing similar struggles.
So here’s what I didn’t think of – my own wellness, determination, and passion for helping others dealing with mental health issues would not eradicate my life of the stigma. Nope, that didn’t happen at all. As a Registered Clinical Counsellor, I STILL have to deal with the stigma against mental health all the time. In fact, I feel like I fight that battle on two fronts now. On the one hand, I fight for all of my clients and people who are struggling with mental illness, but feeling that sense of shame, embarrassment, and fear that I was so familiar with in the past. I will happily be their voice, listen to their upsetting encounters with stigma, and gently encourage their strengths and their journey towards finding their voice. The second area where I fight this battle is in the professional arena. I will not go into detail on the specific stigmatizing experiences that I’ve had professionally, but let’s just say that not everyone understands what counselling or mental illness is, not everyone is willing to learn, and not everyone is ready to be a part of this new world where mental illness is not associated with shame.
I’ll be honest – when I am confronted with the stigma against mental illness, I could easily engage in a profanity ridden, passionate rant that would likely be applauded by some and leave others feeling horrified. I could yell and vent and aggressively try to drive home my points about mental illness not needing to be shameful. I could also throw my hands up in the air and decide to not bother fighting it anymore. After all, it’s a tiring endeavour to constantly fight for what we believe in. But I won’t do those things. I will give my clients the time, space, and a listening ear as they work through their experiences with stigma and gain their strength to fight back. I will educate those naive individuals who think that they know exactly what it means to have a mental illness, to visit a counsellor, or to be a mental health professional. I will advocate for increased conversation and openness about mental illness. And I will continue to voice my experiences and be a voice for those who don’t feel able to fight yet. If you are reading this post at a time in your life when you don’t feel ready or strong enough to stand up to the intimidating weight of stigma, please know that others (like myself) are here to be that voice and we stand strong in the hopes that this won’t be a battle forever. To continue the hashtag train that I joined early today: #IAmNotAshamed #EndTheStigma #BellLetsTalk.