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There was a time I believed everything society thought of me.
As a suicide survivor, I wasn’t merely suffering from grief after my husband’s suicide, I was also internalizing the stigma that surrounded me.
I felt guilty; surely I didn’t get my husband the help he needed. I felt shame; my husband preferred death over his life with me. And I felt hopeless; this is the kind of event that you never get over.
In my grief, I subscribed to the attitudes and assumptions I’d heard expressed countless times throughout my life. As friends and family, the media, and even I made seemingly meaningless remarks about mental illness, depression, and suicide, it shaped the way I would react when these completely shattered my world. I was a living, breathing self-stigma, and that made life unbearable.
What Self-Stigma Looks Like
Today, I’m dedicated to ending the stigma we’ve built around mental illness and suicide—and that doesn’t happen overnight. It happens from within.
Self-stigma is plaguing those who suffer from depression or other mental health issues—and it could be affecting you and sabotaging your health and happiness. As a professional grief counselor and health educator, I encounter self-stigma constantly, expressed by statements like:
“Why do I even try?”
“Everyone thinks ___ about me.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“This is just how I am.”
The problem with self-stigma is that it undermines confidence and self-esteem, both of which are crucial for long-term happiness and success. For example, if the stigma surrounding a particular mental illness asserts that those suffering from it are too unreliable and volatile to succeed in the workplace, anyone who attaches that stigma to themselves will have difficultly believing they can land and keep a good job. And if they believe it strongly enough, they likely won’t even apply for it.
Self-stigma is not an excuse. In fact, according to a 2012 Can J Psychiatry article, people with self-stigma often isolate themselves for fear of what family, friends, coworkers, and others think or feel about them—or because they’d like to keep their mental illness a secret. This isolation leads to decreased healthcare services, which in turn may worsen the symptoms of the illness and decrease their quality of life.
The last thing anyone suffering from mental illness needs is another reason to feel shame. So, if you’re practicing self-stigma, it’s important to recognize that stigma is a cultural problem, but it’s not yours. The negative feelings and stereotypes you believe about yourself and your condition didn’t come from you. They stem from the wide, sweeping ignorance historically exhibited by our society regarding mental health.
Realizing that self-stigma isn’t your own failing, you can then work to shed it. The most basic and essential way to do this is, of course, by seeking professional treatment. Had my husband sought out and stuck with treatment for his depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, he might have realized these “shameful” conditions are not only common, but also treatable.
It’s currently estimated that half of Americans who suffer from mental illness are not receiving the treatment they need. That means these individuals are suffering—often alone and in secret—when there is help available.
Shedding self-stigma requires not just positive action, but also positive thinking and talking. Stigma encourages silence; empowerment breaks that silence. As you’re more open and honest about your mental illness, you encourage others to be as well.
Something as simple as telling a friend about an experience in therapy or creating a social media post that promotes awareness will not only help you stop stigmatizing yourself; it will help break the stigma that’s plaguing our society.
As we work from the inside out, we empower ourselves and others to gain the confidence, health, and happiness we all seek.