I grew up in a small, tight-knit community. If a crisis happened, the phone would ring off the hook. If someone in your family was sick or died, an endless supply of food would arrive at your house. Whether it was flowers or cards or casseroles, there would always be a visual sign of support when it was needed – except when it came to someone struggling with mental illness.
This is not uncommon. Society often pretends that the brain cannot get sick. And if it does, society tells us it’s a secret that must be kept. That is stigma.
During my several stays in inpatient hospitals or at treatment centers, I saw this play out firsthand. No one called my mother to make sure she was OK, if she needed any dinners prepared, or if she needed a ride to come visit me. No one asked what they could do to help. Some family members and close friends didn’t even know what was happening because my parents didn’t want people to find out I was struggling with mental illness.
To be clear, I’m not blaming people or calling them out for failing to support my family. I’m calling out stigma. Because stigma is to blame.
It was stigma that made my mother feel uncomfortable telling her family that I was having a mental health crisis. It was stigma that made my father tell me that I shouldn’t be telling people about my hospitalizations. It was stigma that made people avoid the whole thing rather than talk about something uncomfortable. It was stigma that did those things.
Thankfully, there were people who fought against that stigma.
There was the friend I met on Tumblr – someone I had never met in person – who sent me flowers to make sure I knew I was loved.
There was the family of a high school friend who sent a card to tell me how much my life mattered.
There was the girl from my parish who sent a typed, 12-page letter detailing a weekend retreat I loved but had had to miss because I was in treatment.
The weight of stigma can crush someone’s hope. It can make them feel as though their story doesn’t matter enough to be told or heard, that there are chapters “too personal” to be shared or that there is darkness the light cannot touch.
But that is a lie.
This is the truth: The entirety of your being matters. Your experience is important. All things heavy and light in our lives deserve to be listened to, deserve to be seen, and deserve to be understood. When life gets tough, we should be there offering support, not avoiding the reality because stigma tells us we should.
So I’m asking you to challenge stigma. I’m asking you to challenge yourself: show up, make a card, or ask about visitation.
There are a million ways to support someone. You just have to choose to do it.
Those times when people broke through that wall and showed their support stayed with me even years later. Those times showed me that hope shines brighter than fear. Those times convinced me that we can defeat the stigma that says we can’t talk about mental illness.