People Need to See the Face of Someone with Mental Illness

Those of us who have a mental illness face a great deal of stigma. If people find out we have a mental illness, we are often ostracized, isolated, or blamed. Sometimes we are told we lack faith or are demon possessed. I have been fortunate to receive much support from family and friends, but many of the people I worked with have faced much stigma.

Sadly, what most people know about mental illness is what they see in the media, on TV, and in movies. And often we are portrayed as either someone who is to be pitied, laughed at, or afraid of. Usually, we are portrayed as being violent, but, actually, it is more likely that violence will be done to us than it is that we will be violent. Most of us want a quiet, peaceful life.

Because of this stigma, when we are struggling, often we do not let others know about our struggle. We keep quiet. Often people do not know who has a mental illness because we hide it as best we can. I have been surprised at the people at church who have shared with me that, in the past, they were so depressed they considered suicide or a family member has been suicidal. I never would have guessed. Some of these people have kept it a secret for many years and never spoken of it. Most of them have felt alone.

I am very open about having bipolar disorder, but a little while back, I had a brief episode during which time I struggled with depression and thoughts of self-harm. I had let the other elders and the pastor know, but not the congregation. At church on Sunday, people are always invited to make prayer requests, which are then included in a public prayer. People often request prayers for health concerns and other concerns. Recently, when I had two knee replacement surgeries, I requested prayers for healing. The church has been supportive, even affirming, of me but this time, I did not ask for prayers for my depression and anxiety.

I was surprised by this, and realized that, if someone like me who is very open about having a mental illness in an affirming church, finds it too difficult to ask the church for prayers then it is probably impossible for most of us. The next Sunday, I forced myself to make the prayer request, but it was really difficult and felt very awkward. I made the request for two reasons. First, I needed prayers, and, second, people needed to hear someone make such a request.

And what do people do when they find out we have a mental illness? They usually do nothing. After church, on the Sunday I made my prayer request, no one said anything to me about it. I was not surprised even though this is a very caring church. Most people simply do not know what to say so they say nothing. It is not like when you get sick and people tell you that they hope you get well soon.

Mental illnesses are called the casserole-less condition because of what happens when we are struggling. After my knee replacement surgery, I got get-well cards, and, when I came home from the hospital, food was brought to my house. But, when we struggle with a mental illness, people often do nothing even if they are aware of our struggle. They do not bring a casserole or even send a card. They usually don’t even ask how we are. The situation is just ignored because no one knows what to say or do.

I know I am limited in where I can look for work because I have chosen to be open about having a mental illness. Some positions I don’t even try for, but I have decided to be open about having a mental illness for two reasons. First, I know that in order to fight stigma, people need to see the face of someone with a mental illness other than the faces they see in the media. Second, there are many of us who dare not risk being open so those of us who can be open need to be so eventually we can all be open and receive the support we need.