(September 19, 2007)

In the last post I talked about how my congregation learned to understand and support people with mental illness. I think one important thing that helps me when I try to educate and help people understand mental health issues – whether it’s through writing or meeting with them – is that I try hard to understand the people who don’t yet understand.

I believe we need to go further than just believing that people need to understand US. We need to understand THEM as well. Understanding works best when it goes two ways. We should understand EACH OTHER. That means that we who live with mental illness should also have some empathy for people who are well but need encouragement to grow in their understanding of what mental illness is and isn’t. We need to have some patience with them and educate them gradually. Their learning will be a process, a step-by-step cutting through the stigma that is so heavily ingrained.

We want healthy people to be able to put themselves in our place and have empathy. But we who live with mental illness also need to try to put ourselves in their place and understand why they have trouble having that empathy. We need to understand how to build empathy where it doesn’t exist. And we need to have patience for the process, not getting angry or frustrated, having enough self-esteem to believe that we can change things.

When we have empathy for the people who are in the dark about mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, when we understand why they don’t have compassion, and when we can love them nevertheless, we can start changing things.

It’s a matter of believing in ourselves enough so that we feel no shame or guilt. People will then not be able to hurt us as much by their misunderstanding attitudes. We can learn to ignore snubs and not return them with the same. When people have trouble reaching out to us, we can reach out to them. We need to introduce people gently and gradually to the knowledge of what it means to have an illness like ours. We must not internalize the stigma, nor should we accept the stigma. We need to live as though it doesn’t exist.

I don’t know if this is possible for everyone. From what I’ve heard from others, it appears not. Perhaps it’s been possible for me because of my decision ten years ago to start educating the public by writing about my illness, trying to build empathy and compassion. Reducing the stigma of mental illness has been my main objective in life ever since. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been able to help build compassion in my church. I have learned not to be hurt by people who don’t understand me.

I believe that most people want to have compassion. They only need to understand our illnesses better. For that to happen, the stigma that produces fear in people and makes them avoid learning about it needs to be reduced. And the only way to reduce stigma is for people to talk openly about it. When we make mental illness a natural thing to talk about, it’s amazing how many people with such problems will come out of the woodwork. It’s amazing how much more support can be built.

I thank God that in my church mental health issues have become an okay thing to talk about – something for which we don’t need to feel shame. And how freeing that is!