The label of mental illness has long been a stigma, and stigma will often result in shame. Stigma, by definition, means disapproval and disgrace. The nature of stigma is to set a person apart from a group, fostering an ‘us versus them’ mentality. The end result of stigma is ultimately prejudice, and societal discrimination.
Even when you have a loved one with bipolar, you have probably been conditioned by thousands of years of negative beliefs about mental illness that lead you to have a sense of shame. This shame is counter-productive to your loved one’s health and to your own ability to cope with and support them in their illness.
Shame leads to secrecy. Keeping quiet about your loved one’s disease and hiding it at any cost will isolate you from networks of support. Imagine how different it would be if you could be completely open about your loved one’s bipolar disorder, without all the shame and secrecy. You may find that your neighbor, your co-worker, your boss, and so many other people in your world also are supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder, or suffer from it themselves.
By sharing openly instead of hiding shamefully, you will have more potential of developing a helping network of support. It’s possible that your neighbor will recommend a helpful doctor or therapist in your area. Your boss may know of a support group. Your co-worker may be able to give you pointers on how to cope or how to help your loved one get and stay healthy.
While you may have fallen into the age-old trap of feeling shame over your loved one’s mental illness, he or she most likely feels this shame much more intensely. Your negative perspective can enforce their own sense of shame and secrecy, leading to their further isolation. Your shame is neither healthy for yourself, or your loved one with bipolar.
The past few decades have brought to general awareness that bipolar disorder is a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease. Logically speaking, there is no reason to feel shame or embarrassment about a physical disorder. If your loved one had MS, you would be less likely to be living in shame and secrecy.
As a supporter of someone with bipolar disorder, it’s up to you to begin to break the cycle of stigma, prejudice and discrimination. As P. Byrne said, “Part of coping with stigma is fighting stigma.” And one of the first things you can do is fight it within yourself. Accept that you may have feelings of shame, but at the same time realize that they are illogical and based on prejudice. It’s time to let those feelings go. You don’t want to be a psychophobe’, do you?
P. Byrne points out in his article that while we have words for every other prejudice we can think of, there is no word to describe prejudice against the mentally ill. He suggests adapting the word psychophobic’, and points out that words of this sort have gone far in bringing awareness of prejudice.
When you find yourself feeling shame about your loved one’s bipolar disorder, remind yourself that you’re buying into a culture of psychophobia, and that you are not a psychophobe. By thinking about all the positive elements in your loved one’s disorder, you can begin to conteract those feelings.
Your loved one with bipolar is, by definition, emotionally sensitive. Though this manifests as a weakness in their disease, it can also be seen as a strength. They are possibly quite creative, based on observations and studies linking bipolar illness with creativity. They have the strength to admit that they are different, to carry the burden of this label, and to go on living despite this difficulty. How many normal’ people do you know who could never admit their weaknesses let alone submit to openly revealing them?
Your loved one has the potential to get better. With the right strategies and support, this disease can be managed and even turned around. Many other physical illnesses do not have this potential for healing and change.
Most importantly, you love them. While there may be times that their struggle with bipolar disorder gets the best of them and negatively impacts you, you know that this disease does not define who they are. The fact that they suffer with bipolar disorder is just a small fraction of their being, and you love them in their totality.
Shame is an ingrained, automatic response to the stigma of mental illness. It’s time to take control of this negative and counterproductive emotion, and to become an advocate and supporter of your loved one with bipolar disorder instead of a co-conspirator in prejudice. Any small steps you take within yourself to battle the shame of stigma in mental illness will begin to ripple outwards into the world around you. This can go a long way in helping your loved one, and others who suffer with bipolar disorder.
Byrne, P. Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Vol. 6, 2000, pp. 65-72
Fuller Torrey, E., MD & Knable, Michael B, D.O. Surviving Manic Depression. Basic Books, 2002, p.1.