If I could offer one piece of advice to someone with mental illness it would be this; do not let stigma rule you.
I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder sometime in my twenties. Of course I had been living with the disorder for many years prior; I just didn’t know what it was called. Since then I have faced many struggles, not the least of which have been the close minded and ignorant views of others. Stigma comes in all forms, some less subtle than others. Here is what I have come to learn about people who do not understand mental illness and how I handle it.
Do not to talk about it because mental illness makes people feel uncomfortable
Many people are not comfortable talking about what they do not understand. I am very open about my illness and I am not afraid to talk about it. Of course there is nothing wrong if it is your personal choice to be private about your issues, but make sure it is your choice and you are not letting someone else silence you.
Overcoming mental illness as simple as just smiling or toughening up and pulling yourself up by your boot straps
Stigma teaches that mental illness isn’t that big of a deal and people can easily overcome it by simply ceasing to be mentally ill. You will hear people tell you things like, “I was depressed once! I just went out for a few drinks and I was fine!” Unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand the mental and physical crippling anguish that depression truly is. I have tried explaining BPD to people and I get told it’s not that big of a deal and, “I have that too!” It’s very frustrating to explain to someone that just because they may worry or get emotional that does not mean they have BPD, just as it’s frustrating when someone downplays depression as something that happens when their favorite sports team loses the big game. I see this as the equivalent of telling a person in a wheel chair you know what it’s like because you broke your leg last summer, then telling them to toughen up and just try walking. Long story short, it’s okay if you struggle, it’s okay if you take two steps forward and one step back, and it’s certainly okay if you don’t wake up tomorrow and cure yourself of your illness.
Being aware of things caused by your illness means you’re using it as a crutch
Having a personality disorder is difficult to explain to people. They assume avoiding the traits of my disorder is as simple as changing my personality. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) we are taught that BPD is a combination of a bio/psycho/social model and in fact goes much deeper than what is on the surface, but because they don’t look past the surface people assume I am just being a drama queen or I am self-obsessed. It should be a simple matter of cause and effect. If a person says, “I can’t go to work because I have the flu,” no one accuses them of using their ailment as an excuse or a crutch. However, if I say something like, “I went from putting someone on a pedestal to treating them like dirt in the span of an hour because of my BPD,” then people accuse me of using my disorder as a crutch (despite the fact extreme idealization and devaluation is one of the first traits listed for BPD). Now, let me be clear, the people who recognize the cause of their issues, but refuse to do anything about it or use at as a reason to get away with anything (think of the flu sufferer who is still using a barely there cough weeks later to get time off of work) are using it as a crutch. However by educating yourself, talking openly , recognizing your triggers, and then figuring out what you can do next time you are actually taking huge steps forward in treatment and recovery (even if you make the same mistake twice).
The sad truth is some people will just never understand. No matter how much you talk to people, send them information, or try to reason with them there are just some who will remain close minded. Ignore them. The only person, who has the right to judge you, is you. No one knows how much of a struggle it is living with mental illness, they only see the surface of the complex set of thoughts, emotions, fear, etc. that goes on inside the brain of someone who deals with a mental disorder. Do not let anyone tell you how you should deal with your disorder (whether it be talking openly about it or keeping it to yourself), you are not wrong. Also remember not to judge the way anyone else deals with their disorder. As long as you are not harming yourself or others then it’s not anyone’s right to judge your path or your progress.
Having a mental illness does not make you weak or a lesser person, if anything it allows you to understand emotions that many others can’t. Because I am a highly emotional person I am also highly empathetic and because of mental illness I have chosen to pursue a career as a therapist so I am able to give young people the help I never got. Above all else remember, you may have a mental illness but it does not define who you are and neither does the stigma that goes along with it.