Speak Out to Eliminate the Stigma of Mental Illness
By: Theresa Larsen, author of “Cutting the Soul”
The first time I experienced stigma relating to mental illness was in an airport on the way to visit my son who was residing in a psychiatric facility with severe depression and psychosis. The woman at the airport asked me whether I was traveling for business or pleasure. When I said I was going to see my son, she assumed he was in a University and asked what school he attended. I told her my son was mentally ill and he was going to school at a psychiatric facility. Instead of saying sorry the woman frowned, said “Oh,” and walked away as if I might be contagious.
At that time I did not talk about my son’s mental illness to anyone except one or two very close friends and family. It was something in which I was embarrassed and ashamed. I kept wondering how I had failed as a parent. What could I have done better? Where did I go wrong? It is in this self-blame that we as parents, caregivers, and those who are ill become afraid to stand up and speak out, afraid that we will be judged and scorned.
This fear often prevents those in need of medical and therapeutic treatment from obtaining the help they need. I was able to find the support my son needed, but only after hellish months of feeling like I was hitting a wall with no place to go and no hope for the future.
After many years of living with my son’s illness, I decided, with encouragement from my counselor, to write about what I had experienced. I started on a path of healing by putting my pain, sorrow, frustration, and anger on “paper” (really the computer). At first it was just a therapeutic exercise, but as I wrote I realized that my story could help others who withstood similar events and it could provide useful information to those who were training in the mental health field, so I continued to write and edit and edit and edit.
I was originally going to publish my book under a pseudo-name, because the stigma of talking about mental illness still had its icy grasp on my psyche. Looking back I can laugh at how ridiculous that sounded. I wanted to inform the world about my experience with mental illness in hopes of helping others, but I was unwilling to divulge my identity.
One timid conversation at a time, I spoke about the memoir I was writing called “Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother.” After a lot of awkward conversations I finally felt comfortable talking about mental illness. These were conversations that wouldn’t have been awkward if there was no a stigma attached to the word mental illness. It’s just an illness, like any other, an illness in need of treatment and compassion.
It is our duty to stand up and speak out about mental illness, for now and for future generations. I am grateful to be a part of I STILL MATTER.
A note from Carmen:
I learned about Theresa in the Avondale community newsletter, The Resident (page 25). I liked what I read so I investigated her website then I purchased the book on Amazon. I decided to reach out to Theresa before my book arrived. She was open and encouraging in regards to my One Spark project so I asked her if she’d be interested in being a guest blogger on ISM.
I’m 3/4 of the way through her book now and I can’t put it down. (Well, except to post this blog and to eat a few snacks.) I’ve worked in the field of mental health for over ten years and I’ve never had as much insight into “cutting” as I have with her book. Not only that but it’s given me great insight into what it’s like for a parent to suffer right along her child.
Thank you, Theresa, for your honesty and transparency in sharing your story. Your honesty makes it easier to talk about mental illness without embarrassment or shame.