Since 1993, when the Vancouver Sun published my article, Sick but No One Brought me Flowers, I have fought to reduce the stigma of mental illness. I’ve never stopped. And now, when I’m suffering the effects of having been severely discriminated against a few years ago, I realize I mustn’t stop fighting. I’ve learned what it is to lose my rights as a human being and to suffer from the damage caused.

I want to help those who don’t understand what it means to discriminate against those who happen to live with mental illness. I pray that God will help me show what constitutes stigma and discrimination to those who don’t understand. Much of what I write here has been my personal experience. I have lived with post-traumatic stress ever since. Those who treat me tell me an apology will never come. Yet I wish I could find closure..

Discrimination and stigma have been linked to ignorance, and studies show the majority of the public have limited knowledge of mental illness. The knowledge they do have is often factually incorrect. People living with mental health issues are too often judged negatively and rejected or avoided. Even friends and family members may limit contact with them

But people with mental health issues are individuals not unlike you. They simply have an illness that affects the functioning of their brain. It’s treatable in most cases. Their character is not usually adversely affected. People who live with such issues desire a full life with opportunities to use their strengths to make the most of what is often a difficult life.

They deserve respect in the way every human being deserves respect. Under human rights laws—and as Jesus’ life has shown—we should be considered equal, not discriminated against in any way—not excluded from programs that are intended for everyone. Discrimination should not affect opportunities for friendship. To have friendship withheld on the basis of a mental disability would—as I see it—be sinful. Jesus showed that everyone is welcome at his table. And if we’re his followers, the same should hold true for us.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 KJV)

People with mental health issues often feel their pain to a greater degree than a well person. Their issues have already affected their self-esteem. Being further hurt by insensitive people affects the way they feel about themselves. The emotional pain produced should not be underestimated. It is believed that emotional pain can cause greater suffering than physical pain.

Those who see themselves as upstanding citizens doing their best to help others, are not necessarily blameless. Many have discriminating behaviour they’re not aware of. They simply can’t understand what it means to live in equality with those they support. Even acts of kindness can be stigmatizing if the recipient is made to feel less than, or lower than, the giver. Unintentionally, already fragile people are made to feel inferior. We as supporters need to help those who turn to us find the confidence they need to live a fulfilling life.

An extreme form of discrimination can occur when a person with mental illness is despised to such a degree that all consideration for the person’s humanity is ignored and cruel emotional or physical abuse takes place. The perpetrator is often the last person one would expect. But the effect on the victim’s emotional state can be damaging to a tragic degree.

As individuals who want to show God’s love to those with disabilities of all kinds, the best thing we can do is to walk beside them as brothers and sisters. Patiently encourage them to trust in God. Help them believe in their ability to live a fruitful life.

Marja Bergen

My book, I Will Not Hide: My Life with Mental Illness, describes my story and what I went through as a result of discrimination. Available at Amazon and elsewhere.