The Fallacy of the Stigma of Mental Illness

This morning, I am pondering why there seems to be a rash of celebrity deaths attributed to suicide.

Why is there such a feeling of hopelessness, despair, and anxiety in a country where we seemingly have everything we could ever want, need, or desire? From our cars, houses, and entertainment options to legalized marijuana and alcohol, the United States has everything for everyone in super-sized doses, but I believe we have lost the one thing that really made America great and that is the ability to be good friends and neighbors.

From the time I can remember neighbors helped neighbors when they had a difficult time like the passing of a loved one, critical illness or injury, or when someone was deployed in service to the country. But, even when neighbors helped, those being helped would keep their pain and anguish hidden behind the facade that everything was all right. The rule in many families was that you had to ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ and not let anyone know that you were dealing with any mental anguish, anxiety, stress, or sadness. The belief that people who showed these ‘weaknesses’ were somehow inferior to those who could successfully keep the facade of everything’s perfect shining through the pain was prevalent throughout the 20th Century. But, if truth be told, those who successfully kept the facade of perfection intact were most probably hurting worse than those who let their emotional state shine through because of the mental energy it takes to present that false narrative.

Growing up, I was taught that you hid your mental issues, and you did not discuss your problems of depression or anxiety with anyone outside the family. You definitely did not go to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or hospital for mental health issues because according to the outdated thinking of the previous generation it would stick with you like a criminal record. It is this ‘stigma of the curse of mental illness’ that we somehow need to overcome because getting help does not show weakness but strength in knowing there are some things that you cannot deal with alone; angst, anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health issues are some of them.

In 2012, after a three year run with my dog supply business, the economy had taken a toll on the bottom line and my mental health because of the debt being carried to keep the company afloat. The deeper the debt, the deeper the depression, since the cash flow was consistently in the negative. The negative cash flows increased the depression, anxiety, and pressure which pushed me towards the edge of the abyss. The abyss threatened to swallow me because of all the anger, sadness, and concern I held because I believed that I was a failure because I could not make my business successful like the family business my grandfather started in 1948 which just celebrated 70 continuous years in business. That sense of failure and the feeling that the walls were closing around me pushed me to think and do things that were entirely out of character.

And, had I held on to the stigma that mental illness and bankruptcy were proverbial ‘Scarlet Letters’ that I could never take off, I never would have received the help I knew I desperately needed. That help included declaring bankruptcy, walking away from the business that I hoped would continue the path of entrepreneurial success in the family, and working with professionals to help understand that my depression and anxiety were only temporary and circumstantial. In September of 2012, the next chapter in my life started with a clean page, and it has been a steady ascent ever since, but I know that when the thunderstorms of life come, the support structure built out of the crisis of 2012 will see me through those storms.

The stigma that bankruptcy and mental illness are ‘permanent’ indictments of a lack of constitution and character is entirely wrong because you can overcome both with professional guidance, determination, and strict attention to detail when putting everything back together. The biggest takeaway from this episode is with the right support system and an understanding that sometimes in life you fail, you can work through and overcome life’s impossible circumstances.

How can you overcome seemingly overwhelming life issues? First, do not worry about being stigmatized for saying ‘life is too big for me to handle alone right now.’ Second, when the feelings of hopelessness and despair threaten to swallow you, allow yourself to get the help you need from any available resource including friends, family, or the medical community because your health and well-being should be your number one priority. No matter the circumstances of your anguish, depression, anxiety, or stress; when life overwhelms you, remember you have people in your life who love you and are willing to get you the help you need if you just reach out and ask.

Sadly, several of my friends over the course of my life have taken their own lives, and I don’t know what could have been done to change the outcome. But I do know through personal experience, I am more cognizant of what it means to be a friend and what needs to be done to help others when the storms of life threaten to plunge them into the abyss that is mental illness.

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From personal essays about life lessons, writing, politics, etc. to historical fiction, I write about life today and life past. Check out stancromlishbooks.com

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