Stigma is a mark on one’s character such as a defect or disease that brings reproach.
Walter Wangerin Jr., in his book, Little Lamb Who Made Thee?, makes a profound statement to a young woman who suffers from the stigma of childhood sexual abuse. Her father, who was well-respected in his community, should have protected her, but chose to be her abuser. For this woman, the abuse placed a mark on her and caused her to see herself through the eyes of shame. Wangerin wrote a letter to her posing this question: “If the Lord God took thought to create you, why would you let a sinner define you?”
Why is it that some individuals are able to survive stigma and lead relatively normal lives, while others allow bullies to define them by their vulnerability, their color, their past, their beliefs, their disability, or their illness? I believe, it is based in our thinking process! We tend to become who we believe we are and then behave accordingly. Therefore, by telling ourselves the truth we can refuse to be a victim of our own stigmatized thoughts, thoughts tainted by another person’s definition of us.
However, there is another more ugly and devastating component of stigma i.e., the common long-held beliefs of a society that certain people are less valuable because of their vulnerability, their color, their past, their beliefs, their disability, or their illnesses. How can this form of stigma be broken? I believe the only way to break a societal stigma is to consistently and systematically educate and inform so that people will begin to believe the truth and not the lie. The truth sets us free.
Unfortunately, breaking societal stigma sometimes takes decades. Forty-three years ago, we adopted a child, who lived with a brain disorder all her life. Throughout her childhood, many believed her unexplainable behavior could be directly attributed to our bad parenting. I knew it was a lie, but I was powerless to change the mindset of my closest associates, let alone an entire society. However, I did have the power to change my own thinking through discovering truth and educating one person at a time about brain disorders. I began writing a book about my experiences, explaining how truth helped me overcome stigma. It took 22 years to finish the book, published in 2011 and entitled – God Placed Her in My Path.
May is “Mental Health Awareness Month.” I know that many can identify with mental illness because, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in the U.S. one in four currently experiences a brain disorder. That includes depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorders, post-traumatic stress, depression, and many more diagnoses.
May I suggest that this month we each change just one thought, one attitude, or one action concerning mental illness? How can we do that? 1. Enroll in a free National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) class to learn more about brain functions, illnesses and symptoms, treatments, medications, current breakthroughs in research, etc; 2. Write to a legislator to change a law or support a program that would help individuals living with a brain disorder; 3. Volunteer or donate to an organization that advocates for the cause; 4. Tell or write a personal story about living with one of these illnesses or caring for someone who does; and/or 5. Simply change the way we refer to someone who experiences a chronic brain disorder.
Let’s all do our part to break the stigma!