Mental Illness Stigma: Overcoming the “Scarlet Letter” of Our Times

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Perhaps you read the book The Scarlet Letter in high school.  In this book, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, commits adultery and becomes pregnant.  As a result, she is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” (for affair and adultery) on her dress as a sign of shame, and is scorned by the other townspeople…

                While I’ve never been in that position directly, I have lived in Hester Prynne’s world in another way:  I am a person living with a mental illness known as Bipolar Disorder.  I remember when I was diagnosed with this disorder in 1996.  I was a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta.  I was two months in, and in those two months, I had created a great support network of friends, become involved in several activities, and gotten straight A’s.  I thought that I was at the top of my game.  Then, mental illness hit, seemingly out of nowhere.  My self-care fell away, I stopped going to class, and wouldn’t leave my room, except for quick meals.  And, while my peers didn’t make me wear a big B for Bipolar on my clothing, I felt like they all knew.  It was obvious that something was wrong, and I felt extremely self-conscious. 

                Now, I know what you are thinking:  it was all in my head.  And, this is what I tried to convince myself of as well, as I hadn’t told anyone about my disorder.  But, fast forward one year, and you will see the direct correlation between Hester’s “scarlet A” and my “scarlet B.”  I had to come home from Emory for treatment for bipolar.  After about 9 months, I began again, this time as a freshman at Rutgers (whose mascot, ironically, is the Scarlet Knight).   I made the decision to be open about bipolar.  And, while some people were supportive, the “Scarlet B” was very prevalent.  I pledged in a sorority, and almost got kicked out because I couldn’t drink on my medication, or participate in every event because I was not always feeling well enough emotionally.  I was in and out of the hospital for treatment, which involved taking a mini-bus to my partial program while living in my sorority house.  Everyone knew, and while I still had some friends, many people stayed away.  This is not to say that I didn’t have some great support in my sorority and other activities that I was a part of at Rutgers, it just seemed like there was definitely stigma that made it more difficult for me to establish and maintain friendships sometimes.   

                People with mental illness are some of the most marginalized and stigmatized people in our society.   And as a result, many people are forced into silence about their illness.  Many don’t seek out help even though they are suffering, sometimes with dire consequences.  Mental illness can be a fatal condition if it is not properly treated.  Yet, with treatment and support, people can have a full recovery.  Can you imagine, in this day and age, stigmatizing or shaming people for having other fatal illnesses, such as cancer?   It would be unthinkable.  Yet, that’s what we do to people with mental illness. 

                These days, I am still speaking out about bipolar.  I share my story on my blog, on Facebook, and with anyone else who will listen.  I do it despite the “Scarlet B” because I know the statistics.  I know that 1 in 4 Americans suffers from a mental illness annually.  I know that even if they don’t respond to my posts or blogs, which relatively few do, that I’m reaching people who would otherwise feel completely alone and ashamed.  I really feel that the more people share their stories, the more likely we are to overcome this horrible stigma, and the more likely more people are to recover.  And, the good news is, that with treatment, people can and do get well.  Even though I was struggling so much in college that I was hospitalized a dozen times, I now am considered by my doctors to be completely stable and in recovery.  I work.  I advocate. I contribute to my society by helping others to get well.  And I do it all with the hopes that an understanding will happen in society about those of us with mental illness.  Not only do we get better, but for many of us, our journey helps us to become the best versions of ourselves. 

                It is my fervent prayer that by reading this, you will be inspired to act.  Share your story.  Support someone you know with mental illness.  Help people to know that there is no more shame in having mental illness than there is in having cancer or other serious illnesses.  I didn’t create bipolar.  It wasn’t because I was morally weak, sinful, or craving attention.  But, I did beat it.  And I hope that just as I overcame my personal struggle, we can, as a society, overcome the stigma that keeps people silenced and untreated.  Please, help me remove this “Scarlet B” from my chest once and for all.  

Be Well
~Emily

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