I was diagnosed with a mental illness at 29 years old, but the greatest challenge I faced wasn’t the illness itself. It is was the suffocating stigma that came with it.
I am speaking of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and the lack of empathy and understanding that follows – and that’s at best. At worst, blatant discrimination is the result. Stigma is inappropriate, unnecessary and offensive. But, unlike mental illness, we have the power to overcome stigma.
Mental illness can be treated – but stigma can be cured.
I came to this realization through the unique experience of being diagnosed with both a major physical illness and a mental illness. The former was a rare nerve defect in my heart that began causing symptoms at 9 years old, and ultimately lead to open-heart surgery at 12 years old. During the entire experience I was overwhelmed with support, love – and a complete lack of stigma. Who would look at a young boy with a heart problem and think his character was in question? Or ask him to just “try harder” or “get more exercise”?
The latter was bipolar disorder, the symptoms of which began appearing in 2002 and progressively worsened until 2005, when I had a 6-day manic episode that resulted in a forced 2-week stay in psychiatric hospital. During those tumultuous three years, bipolar disorder nearly destroyed my life.
It was in comparing these two experiences, both personally and professionally, that I realized the destructive power of stigma, which is very prevalent with respect to mental illness and yet non-existent with other, more known illnesses.
The reality was that years after fixing one major organ with open-heart surgery, it appeared another, this time my brain, wasn’t working properly. Despite the similarities of the illnesses – in both cases, a major organ had a biological failure that created dramatic symptoms – there was nothing similar about the two experiences. First, there was the challenge of self-stigma, which was so strong that for nearly two years I refused treatment and actually tried to find my way back to health through the sheer force of will and determination (as though that was a viable option).
Stigma also reared its ugly head in a second, external way. This time it came in the form of confusion, discomfort, judgment and at times outright discrimination in the minds of those around me. This happened regularly, and not only with those in my professional life, but also those in my social life and family. It was jarring to realize that all of the support, unconditional love and empathy that came my way when my heart wasn’t working was nowhere to be seen now that my brain was failing.
After finally winning the battle against stigma, I began to treat my illness properly – as a medical illness that required my attention, research and, ultimately, treatment. This approach lead to a successful return to full health within 6 months of being hospitalized and diagnosed and, for the vast majority of the days since June, 2005, I have been living well, free of the worst symptoms of bipolar disorder. I work very hard to manage my illness and maintain my physical and mental health, and it isn’t always easy or perfect, but approaching my illness with zero stigma has helped immeasurably.
Once I fully ‘owned’ my illness, I realized I had the opportunity to help others by sharing my experience. Very few people have faced both a physical and mental illness, recovered, are willing to speak about it, and are effective public speakers. My degree in Theatre and Speech Communication provided the final ingredient.
So, in 2006, I started talking. From 2006 to 2015, I delivered over 40 keynotes as a volunteer on behalf of AMI QC, a Montreal-based organization that helps caregivers of those facing mental illness, and also provides outreach education. In 2015, after years of seeing the positive impact of sharing my message, I founded StigmaZero to work towards a future without stigma by helping employers eradicate stigma in their workplaces, so they can better manage mental illness as it arises in their workplace.
My message was, and still is, very clear: stigma continues to exist regarding mental illness because of fear and a lack of understanding. It may often be innocent, but it doesn’t belong, and education is the first step toward eradicating it. We should never again speak of mental illness in any other terms than what it is – an illness.
If you know someone who suffers from a mental illness (and statistics say that you probably do) or if you suffer from one yourself, be a part of the effort to end the stigma.
Stigma is something we have the power to cure. Let’s get rid of it.
Author of the book Jason: 1, Stigma: 0 – My battle with mental illness at home and in the workplace
Jason Finucan is a mental health advocate, stigma fighter, professional speaker, founder of StigmaZero and instructor of the programs found within The StigmaZero Online Training Academy.