Mar 7, 2017
This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.
I first learned about mental illness and stigma because of a heart defect. That probably sounds odd to you, but it will soon make perfect sense, because in this article I will share some hard lessons I’ve learned about this complex topic – starting with this:
Stigma is a f@#r-letter word.
(I know you’re counting the letters … and there are of course 6 letters in stigma. But as a metaphor for the 4-letter swear words we would never use in certain situations, it works.)
I am referring to the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the lack of empathy and understanding that follows, and that’s at best. At worst, blatant discrimination is the result. Stigma is inappropriate, unnecessary and offensive – truly a f@#r-letter word.
I came to this realization as a 9-year-old boy, sitting cross-legged on the floor and watching my favourite TV show after school. That was when my heart abruptly beat so fast it seemed like it might burst.
I soon learned I had a rare nerve defect in my heart which would require open heart surgery to fix. Although the operation was truly scary, I was fortunate to come out with a repaired heart and, after a long recovery, my full health.
Looking back, I am still overwhelmed by the love and support I was given during those difficult years. Not once did anyone treat me like I had done something wrong. Not once did my friends seem uncomfortable with my illness. Not once did my teachers question my motivation or work ethic when they learned I had to miss more than two months of school.
I had no idea how lucky I was.
I was allowed to face this challenge with zero stigma from those around me. I had no idea how lucky I was.
For many years after that, I enjoyed the kind of health we all so easily take for granted. But when I was 26, things changed radically for me when I began to experience the symptoms of bipolar disorder. (Of course, at the time I had no idea what it was.)
First came months of paralyzing depression, during which I would feel completely shut off from everyone around me, unable to function and often sleeping 18 hours a day.
Describing clinical depression is an interesting challenge, especially considering we all have used the word “depressed” to describe a short-lived mood, like sadness or melancholy. However, to suffer from clinical depression is closer to the worst flu you have ever had than emotional sadness. It is incredibly physical – you feel it in every fiber of your being.
After months of clinical depression, my mood would suddenly shift to long periods of uncontrolled hypomania, during which I would need only 4 hours of sleep a night, and would have so much physical and mental energy I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Despite the torrent of energy, we all need rest on a cellular level and if you are manic you simply can’t get it. Your attention span shortens, you become more easily irritated, you become a terribly one-sided conversationalist and, ultimately, mania can ruin relationships with your intense and odd behaviour.
And, if an acute manic episode reaches maximum severity and lasts, as mine did, for 6 days with zero sleep, your health can quickly deteriorate.
My first encounter with that f@#r-letter word, stigma, actually came in the form of self-stigma, which was so strong that for nearly two years I refused treatment and actually tried to will myself back to health (as though that were an option).
“Jason, can’t you just try harder and snap out of it?”
During this time, I was also forced to deal with stigma in a second, external way – in the form of discomfort and at times outright discrimination in the minds of those around me. The most common example I heard was: “Jason, can’t you just try harder and snap out of it?”
All of the support and empathy that came my way when my heart wasn’t working was nowhere to be seen now that my brain was failing.
Eventually I recognized that bipolar disorder should be treated in the same way as my heart condition – as a medical illness that required my attention, research and, ultimately (in my case) treatment. This approach led to a successful return to full health within 6 months.
As an inspirational speaker on this topic, my core message is that stigma continues to exist regarding mental illness only because of fear, and a lack of understanding. It may well be innocent, but it doesn’t belong.
My hope is that if you know someone who suffers from a mental illness (and statistics say that is likely) or if you suffer from one yourself, you will:
I am asking you to be a part of the effort to clean up our act: stigma is a f@#r-letter word. Let’s get rid of it.
Author: Jason Finucan, Inspirational Speaker & Founding Principal
Jason Finucan became a professional inspirational speaker and founded Empower Professional Services to open people’s minds up to the reality of stigma. Having experienced both a major physical and mental illness, Jason has a unique perspective on what a negative – and truly unnecessary – force stigma could be.
As an active member of CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Speakers) and GFS (Global Federation of Speakers), Jason is an experienced and dynamic speaker with the ability to profoundly impact audiences.