“Tell Me it Can’t Happen to Me”

by Joseph Merlin Bower

According to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: Stigma: 1. a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach as on one’s reputation. 2. a characteristic mark or sign of defect, degeneration, disease, etc.

Many of us with mental illnesses feel that we are unfairly stigmatized. One can argue over semantics: is it stigma or discrimination, prejudice, even hatred? Whatever it is called large groups of the population believe there is shame in having a mental illness. My mother and I both spent time in a state mental institution, but our illnesses were never spoken of in our family. One assumes that is because we brought shame upon the entire family: a stain or reproach upon our reputation. A real danger for people like me is buying into this nonsense and self stigmatizing.

The zealousness with which a district attorney pursued her duty of protecting the public from someone who might present a danger made me wonder if she had a personal vendetta against this dear friend of mine who was before the court on two separate occasions several months apart. My friend had come under the courts control because of something she did while suffering from psychosis. She is a wonderful human being who has responded very well to extensive psychiatric treatment. She truly no longer poses a threat to anyone. But the DA fought to the bitter end to deny her so much as permission to travel out of state to the bedside of a dying close relative.

To be clear, I have no idea whether or not this is personal for the DA. She may truly feel it her duty to execute her job in such a fashion. Some might argue that she is right. But my suspicions that this was more than conscientiousness in fulfilling her obligation to the public got me to wondering what might be her problem and that of many who don’t “get” mental illness.

Here is my fifty cent theory: The idea of possibly contacting a serious mental illness terrifies people. Having a badly malfunctioning brain is, after all, among the very worst things that can happen to a person that doesn’t kill one quickly and painfully. Seeing a so afflicted fellow human being brings awareness of personal vulnerability. If this is another physical or biochemical illness it could happen to me.

To ease their fears many people try to see people with serious mental illnesses as fundamentally different than themselves. So they attribute their affliction to weakness, a lack of character or morality: some characteristic mark or sign of defect. Because they have no mark or sign of defect and  strong character and morality; they are immune. This awful thing will never happen to them. The person to whom it has happened deserves it and is to be looked down upon.

I’m sure there are many and varied reasons why the mentally ill are so widely stigmatized, but I wonder if this isn’t one of them.


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