This week had two unique and, yet, connected experiences. And, in both experiences, I experienced stigma and from what should be unlikely places.
My first place feeling stigmatized for my mental illness was actually at an event hosted by NAMI and an institution in Indianapolis that focused on mental health among those from different contexts. I was excited to learn that speakers would be a woman who is a refugee from Iraq and an immigrant from East Africa (I never quite caught the name of the country, but know she had to escape to Sudan and then she came to the United States). My assumption, looking at the description and knowing what I know about mental health problems among minorities and refugees (namely, they experience much higher levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, among others), I thought we would have a great discussion. I was wrong.
Our discussion not only did not focus on the problems of mental illness among refugees and those living in the United States from various cultural contexts, but it actively avoided it. The moderator and organizers even made sure that we never even uttered the words mental illness. Instead, we talked about the “emotional toll,” the “emotional problems,” the need for “mental health resources,” how we can “think positively,” and a number of other code words that cover over dealing with the real problems. And, even when the woman from Iraq made an attempt to share some of the statistics on mental illness of refugees from CDC (Centers for Disease Control), she was cut off and we were told we were out of time.
This experience reinforced to me that I am weird, that I am other, and that people who experience mental illness are weird and other. And this was reinforced to us by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It was terrible. The organization made sure to not talk about or deal with the issues surrounding mental illness that are so prevalent in these situations. It was done in order to not have uncomfortable situations and to make sure that as many people fell under the tent as possible. But, it really ostracized people like me, people who actually live with a real mental illlness and does not just have a mental health issue. No longer are organizations like NAMI advocating for people with mental illness, but they are trying to make the tent as big as possible and ostracizing those of us who have a diagnosed mental illness (let alone those that have a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depressive disorder, among others).
The need for confronting stigma by the likes of NAMI came to the fore for me, though, when I went to a community rally in support of unity and reconciliation. It was a Christian event and, despite some reservations, my wife and I took our kids. We thought it was just a response to Charlottesville and a real call for unity and reconciliation. About half-way through the service, a pastor came up and said he was going to talk about depression. This sent shivers up my spine. When Christians talk about depression, there is almost always an embrace of stigma and the discrimination that comes with it. They just lack the language to deal with the subject. And this speaker was no different. Instead of talking about the disparities in access to mental health resources (like medications, counselors, etc) for people of color. Or, he could have talked about how people of color are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. He did none of this. Instead, depression was reduced to a feeling of discouragement, a spirit of hopelessness that is cured by real joy. These kinds of thoughts have left many Christians with mental illness on cusp of suicide, has led many others to leave Christianity, and others to actually attempt suicide. And, as someone with a PhD in Theology, who teaches theology, I can also say it is really bad theology and a poor reading of the Bible. We left due to the deep hurt and triggers that this caused of thinking causes for me. (We heard that the pastor speaking on addiction was actually worse, not dealing at all with the conditions of addiction while also saying only God can help the addict, absolving himself and others of any need to help).
So, our work has to continue. People, especially it seems those of us in the Midwest, are still stigmatizing and discriminating against people with mental illness. We are either being reduced to a spirit of discouragement or are being negated totally into a mental health issue that can be solved through meditation and good thinking. As an advocate for those with mental illness, it is really hard to have these things happen. As someone who lives with a mental illness, it shows a lack of respect and love for me, an inability to deal with the issues that I and others like me face, and tells me that I am not important. I’ve experienced this in other places as well, but to have it happen twice in one week at events that were supposed to support understanding and reconciliation was a real kick in the gut. I am utterly disappointed.