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Christiane Wells: Living With the Stigma of Mental Illness

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2011-04-15-picture39814.JPGBy Christiane Wells

If you have a mental illness, one thing you learn is how to deal with people who mock the disorder you've been diagnosed with. From strangers to television shows to coworkers, it is hard to escape those who make hurtful remarks about people with bipolar disorder. The misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder are many, and until they are dispelled, stigma will continue to cause people to suffer alone -- hesitant or fearful to admit they have a mental illness lest their friends, family and coworkers discover they are "crazy."

My last job, as a caseworker in child protection, was a real lesson in learning not to betray my hurt feelings when people I liked and respected spoke ill of clients with bipolar disorder. They had no idea (yet) about my own struggle with bipolar disorder, and didn't realize they might as well have been talking about me. Eventually, depression forced me to inform my agency that I have bipolar disorder because I needed to take time off before I completely fell apart. Once my boss and the administrators knew, it was over. I was labeled "crazy," and that was that.

In that job, I worked with a parent who has Bipolar I Disorder (my diagnosis) and she really impressed me with how well she was managing despite the stress in her life. The other professionals working with me spoke derisively about this mom. She and I took the same medications and it was tough to hear.

Stigma plagues those of us with mental illness, and I can only hope that raising awareness and educating the public will make a change. For example, bipolar disorder is quite misunderstood. There are four categories of bipolar disorder, each varying in symptoms, but all serious and potentially debilitating in terms of social and occupational functioning. People with Bipolar I Disorder have had at least one manic episode, as opposed to people with Bipolar II Disorder who have hypomanic episodes. Studies have shown that people with Bipolar II Disorder have more periods of major depression than people with Bipolar I Disorder.

The other types of bipolar disorder, Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified and Cyclothymia, are also very serious. It's not a competition about who has the more severe illness, although sometimes it seems that way. One fallacy is that mania is always a great time, and I assure you it is not. Sometimes a manic episode manifests as extreme agitation, and the feeling is so uncomfortable it makes me want to jump out of my skin. It's during these times I've felt "crazy." Wanting to scream, punch walls, and run away are very unpleasant. "Fun" mania is the type where you feel like you're on top of the world, you're invincible, and anything is possible. But when the feeling goes away, it's emotionally crushing.

One thing that I'd like to see change is people saying, "I'm bipolar." Also, I cringe when I hear people referring to us as "bipolars." We are people with bipolar disorder. I have the illness, but it doesn't define me. This is something I struggled with until fairly recently. It sometimes takes years to be properly diagnosed, and once diagnosed, it can actually be a relief. Finally you understand why you've felt the way you have, and displayed behaviors that may have caused great damage to your life. But we are more than a diagnosis, we are real people, with feelings and hopes and dreams that are bigger than bipolar disorder.

There's no easy answer here. It isn't just bipolar disorder that is stigmatized, it is all mental illnesses. We can't "get over it," or "suck it up" or "snap out of it." While some disorders are temporary, many are not, and it may take a lifetime of medication and other measures to control the symptoms. I'm doing pretty well in my life right now, but it is because I work hard to be where I am. Therapy, medication, eating healthy foods, spending time outside, journaling, reaching out to people when I need help -- these are just some of the things that help me. And it isn't always enough. Like someone with a chronic physical illness such as diabetes, I have to make a conscious effort to be well.

I'm not speaking for all people with bipolar disorder; I'm just sharing my own experiences with this illness. I've been contacted many times by people who are desperate to get help, or who have had a friend or family member with bipolar disorder, or major depression, and they've chosen to reach out. We can learn from each other, help each other, and with increased awareness and education, I do believe that stigma will be lessened in our society. The thing I always want people to know is that there is hope. No matter how dark things seem, there are others who understand, and change is possible.

Christiane Wells, MSW, is the author of Magical Shrinking: Stumbling Through Bipolar Disorder and No Guarantees: A Young Woman's Struggle to Overcome Drug and Alcohol Addiction. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, with her husband and son. Read her blog on Red Room.