Written in 2009

As a person living with bipolar disorder, I used to feel frustrated that so many people did not understand mental illness. I was angry that people didn’t even try to empathize. But through my writing and educating others, I’ve learned that the problem does not lie with healthy people alone. It also lies with those of us who themselves live with mental illness. We share the onus of making the world a friendlier place for people like ourselves.

We who live with mental illness need to go beyond thinking that others should understand us. We need to understand them as well. Understanding is a two-way street. All of us should understand each other. Those of us with mental illness should empathize with healthy people who need to be encouraged to learn what mental illness is and is not. We need the patience to educate them gradually. With help, they will learn, step-by-step, to cut through the stigma that so heavily surrounds mental illness.

We would like to see healthy people put themselves in our place, with empathy. But we with mental illness must also put ourselves in their place, to understand why they have so much trouble empathizing. We need to learn how to build empathy where it doesn’t exist. And we need patience with those who can’t identify with us—not anger or frustration, but love, showing them love in the same way we want to be loved.

If we believe in ourselves, without shame or guilt, others will not be able to hurt us as much with their unsympathetic attitudes. We will learn to ignore snubs. We will reach out to others who have trouble reaching out to us. We will learn not to internalize the stigma. We will not accept the stigma but will live instead as though it doesn’t exist.

Most people want to feel compassion for others. All they need is to understand our illnesses better. For that to happen, the stigma that causes fear and prevents people from learning must be reduced. And the only way to reduce stigma is to talk openly about these issues. When we talk naturally about mental illness, it’s amazing how many people with these problems come out of hiding. Others become more supportive, and suddenly sick people no longer need to suffer alone and in silence.

Though I’m still angry at the stigma, I no longer feel as angry about the misunderstanding. Today I try instead to understand people who don’t understand, knowing they need time to learn. If we educate with patience, one person at a time—loving them as we want to be loved—the world will become a better place.

As the Bible says, “…live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” (1 Peter 3:8)

And that goes for all of us.

This was Part 21 of the series A Voice of One Calling. Read Part 22 How Did Jesus Overcome Injustice?