Reduce stigma by killing shame
As we celebrate World Mental Health Day (10/10), I pause to remember the patients/clients whom I have worked with in the past 17 years. I want to recognize and honour their courage, resilience and grit in continue living even though it is so hard.
I am heartened that there are more open conversations on mental health compared to a decade ago. Earlier this year there was even the inaugural Singapore Mental Health Film Festival. More sufferers are willing to step forward courageously to share their stories to encourage and inspire fellow sufferers. All of these efforts are pointing in the right direction and we should persist.
What makes mental illness so painful is the shame that individuals feel; the fact that they are less than, inadequate, weak and worthless. Society has not arrived at a place where we can talk about it as openly as our physical health. At least, no one is hesitant to get a medical certificate from a general practitioner but one from Institute of Mental Health, no way!
How can we reduce the stigma of mental illness?
I have one suggestion that I like to propose and it is as follows:
we need to start sharing our “failure” or “screwed up” stories.
Every person undergoes challenges in life and experiences deep pain for various reasons. For someone who suffers from mental illness, the natural thought is that “I am alone in this. Everyone but I can deal with life.” He/she looks around and sees “successful” people who seem to have it all and feel demoralised.
We, the supposed “successful” people have in some way perpetuate the stigma of mental illness by keeping silent and not share our pain openly.
Recently, I shared with a client of my struggle with anxiety and she was surprised because outwardly I appear mostly calm and confident. I believe my story gave her hope that if my therapist can overcome and learn to manage her anxiety, so can I.
The challenge that I want to extend to everyone is this: share your struggles, not just your victory.
When something painful is a common experience, there isn’t a need to hide the secret any longer and we can better support one another. Truthfully, all of us has some form of dysfunction; it is only a matter of degree and how well we manage it.
I shall walk the talk and share the times when I felt like a failure.
· After getting a scholarship to come to study at a top Junior College, I did so poorly for my promo exam that I was put on probation. That was my first taste of failure as I had been an excellent student up until that point. My self-esteem took a hit and I seriously considered quitting school and return to my hometown. I persisted.
· Being diagnosed with Moya Moya Disease and suffering stroke where I lost the ability to read and write and my right visual field.
· The first year of my marriage was really tough. It caught me by surprise as we had a wonderful courtship and seemed to get along really well. We went through several challenges, including my brain surgeries and stroke. I was left confused and disillusioned. The upside of it is that I started to learn more about what makes relationship work and I ended up discovering my call and passion.
· Infertility. As we looked forward to expanding our family, we received bad news after bad news with each visit to different specialists. I seriously felt that perhaps something was wrong with me that I was not good enough to be a mother. After 4 years, we had wanted to give up when our miracle baby came along.
· The years that I was a trailing wife, I lost my sense of identity and I watched my peers moving ahead in their career and life while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life at age 32. I couldn’t let go of the narrow definition of success. I was a nobody. It took me 3 years to re-calibrate and find my voice and I started my blog- Winifred & You, Flourishing Together.
The above wasn’t easy to write; it’s not what we usually do and it feels risky and uncomfortable.
That’s the challenge; are we ready to share and reveal the pain that we too keep in our hearts?
To de-stigmatize mental illness, we need to acknowledge and embrace authenticity and vulnerability. As long as we breathe, we hurt. We fall and we rise.
Let’s share our resilient stories so that everyone else will be inspired to do the same. In so doing, we kill shame because it no longer has a hold on us.
Will you join me? #killshame #resilientstory