The Stigma Associated With Having Bipolar Disorder

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Stigma has many meanings: these meanings range from marks of disease on the skin to a part of a flower to a mark of disgrace. Unfortunately for those with mental illnesses, it is the last definition that comes closest to what we actually experience as a stigma.

In fact, some dictionaries even use "the stigma of mental illness" as an example in their definitions.

I found one dictionary definition that I feel sums it up very well: "A feeling that something is wrong or embarrassing in some way." This is the feeling that compels some of us to hide our diagnosis, or drives our families to pretend the problem is something else.

This is what sometimes keeps us in the shadows.

A look at dictionaries that list synonyms is very telling. Words like black mark, defect, blame, disgrace, dishonor, fault, stain, and taint, shame, and guilt are just some of the concepts that apply to the social stigma of mental illness. It's not our fault, but these words show why we sometimes feel that way.

Stigma and Discrimination in Mental Illness

A person who has been stigmatized on account of mental illness, real or even only perceived, often suffers discrimination at work, in school, or in other social situations such as churches or clubs. They may be shunned by acquaintances, friends and even family; they may be laughed at behind their backs or to their faces.

Stigma usually stems from ignorance, prejudice or fear. For example, when a person tells a friend or coworker that he or she has bipolar disorder, the response might be:

  • "Oh, everybody's a little bipolar, why are you so special?" (ignorance)
  • "Oh, man, you're one of them? Gee, that's tough," followed by shunning. (prejudice)
  • "You mean you might flip out and start shooting people?" (both ignorance and fear)

People with mental illnesses are often rejected by others in their lives because of the perception that they are dangerous, irresponsible, or just too difficult to deal with — all without any real understanding of the illness and often without knowing them well enough to make any sort of fair judgment.

They also can be passed over for promotions at work, or just generally sidelined, even if their conditions are well under control.

How to Combat Stigma in Bipolar

To fight stigma, the first step is education: once people understand more about your medical condition, they will begin to see you realistically, rather than through the lens of their fears.

You also need to combat negative feelings in yourself: believe that your mental illness doesn't define you, and the people around you will sense that self-confidence and learn from it.

Neither of these things is easy, and they may challenge you. But combating stigma isn't an instant process, anyway — it will take time. The more you feel you can do, the more it will help both you and everyone else with bipolar or another form of mental illness.