Recently, a friend and colleague of mine, Cara Hoepner, was interviewed on the radio as a representative for the National Association of the Mentally Ill (NAMI). She is a fellow Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner in the state of California in private practice but also has “come out” as someone who struggles with Bipolar Disorder. I am very proud of her for talking about her disorder openly giving voice to the millions of people around the world who struggle with mental illness, as well as the stigma associated with it. Yes, stigma continues to be a huge problem in the year 2011!
Not long ago I was teaching a Sunday school lesson in my church. In the lesson, I spoke opening about some mental health issues in my family. I got permission from this family member to talk about it. I identified the illness by name and explained some of the problems related to that disorder. I was amazed to see a woman’s face with a horrified look on her face out in the audience shaking her head. She was clearly not pleased with what I was saying. As a mental health professional, I am keenly aware of HIPPA laws and the issue of privacy, but there needs to come a time when mental illness is not looked upon as something shameful that needs to be hidden! When I talk about heart disease or diabetes I have never got this type of reaction.
Another story…I used to belong to a book club. We read the book “The Glass Castle” which I highly recommend as a book that sheds light on the day to day living in a family with mental illness and addictions. Each of the members started talking about issues in their own family that have caused them pain. One particular woman started talking about her early childhood memories of an addicted mother with obvious mental health issues whose boyfriends abused her as a child. It was quite disturbing, but I was amazed that this woman, who has always avoided dealing with her issues in the past, had the courage to admit this in this group of women. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. One of the members quickly got up and left. I ached for the woman who shared the story that has had such impact on her life. Did she get the message that her life was too shameful to talk about? I wonder if she will ever share this with anyone again?
I would like to set the example at this time and admit that I have personally struggled with Depression and ADHD my whole life. I have also struggled with Diabetes in pregnancy and low iron levels. I am not ashamed of those conditions and I have obtained treatment for them.
In order to combat the huge problem of mental illness in this country, I challenge everyone to have the courage to admit mental health problems. It is not shameful! It is a chemical imbalance that is believed to be at least 50% related to genetics. I challenge businesses to decrease stigma and improve mental health parity by covering mental health illness treatment just like you would Diabetes or heart disease. We as a people all have a part in overcoming mental health stigma!