This interview was conducted back in fall 2016 with a friend of mine who I’ve named “Naomi” to protect their real identity. I asked for some guidance from a colleague involved with NAMI on how to write this article and the questions that would be posed. Thus, the interview has its light spots while also its serious spots. I will also include a little of my own experiences, as that was the initial plan when I took my notes two years ago. My hope is that the effects of mental health stigma can be highlighted here while also humanizing the experience of mental health conditions (MHCs) and recovery.
Question 1: In your own words, what is stigma?
Naomi: Stigma is when people assume things about you just because you have a condition. Stigma is generalizable and often stereotypical.
Raquel: I feel that stigma is an unjust assumption regarding a person’s experiences and what they are capable or incapable of. It’s often used in a way that lumps all of us who experience mental health conditions into, at its worst, “dangerous” and “criminal” stereotypes when the majority of us are anything but. We are often people who have been deeply hurt by life and are more likely to hurt ourselves before hurting others. Some people have dark intentions, but just because someone is living with psychosis or depression doesn’t mean they’re out to get everybody else.
Q2: How does stigma impact the general public?
N: It leads to misconceptions and a lack of empathy. It instills fear in others, judgments, and misunderstanding.
R: I agree with Naomi. Stigma ignites fear of not understanding the unknown and some people will never have the willingness to understand mental health conditions and those aren’t the people I try to concern myself with. Instead I look for those who are open-minded and who have a willingness to learn. People like myself, who will research something to get a better understanding of it and share kindness and hope rather than darkness and hate.
Q3: Who are you?
N: I’m a warrior and a human being. I’m empathetic and sensitive. I love nature. I love cats. I enjoy parks with trees.
Q4: How does stigma impact those suffering from MHCs?
N: The person may feel as though they cannot open up or are uncomfortable about opening up in the first place. I dealt with self-harm in middle school and heard lots of jokes about it and that unkindness made me feel like I had to be silent about my struggles.
R: Again, I agree with Naomi. I think at its worst, stigma causes more people to be afraid of being vulnerable and afraid they’ll be kicked while they’re already down by people who have no interest in understanding the complexities of life and the power and strength that lies in saying, “I struggle too.” I personally align and surround myself with people who are less afraid to put themselves out there to be the beacons of light and hope to others who are also struggling. I hope that by doing my part, I can help to change someone else’s life for the better.
Q5: What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
N: I’m vegan, so Ben & Jerry’s peanut butter ice cream!
R: I love Ben & Jerry’s “Boom Chocolatta.” It’s amazing!
Q6: How important is person first language [referring to someone as "a person with OCD," as opposed to "an OCD person"] for you?
N: Person first language is really important. People with mental health conditions can feel defined by their issues, and mental health conditions don’t completely define a person.
R: A person with MHCs are an entire mind, body and spirit separate from them. MHCs are a small part of someone, not the entire picture.
Q7: Favorite thing to purchase?
N: Books and music.
R: Books, stationery, journals, and gel pens.
Q8: What are some of the mental health conditions that you live with?
N: Post-traumatic stress disorder.
R: OCD, depression, trichotillomania (hair-pulling), and borderline personality disorder.
Q9: Who is impacted by mental health conditions?
N: Anyone—any individual, friend, family, loved one, stranger, neighbor. Someone may not even know they have a problem or an underlying condition going on. Someone may not even realize that they do know someone who is struggling or has struggled in the past.
R: Most psychiatric disorders don’t necessarily have a specific “face” to them—they can be seen in some behaviors, yes, but a person doesn’t have to “look” mentally unwell to be mentally unwell. Depression or OCD aren’t a person, they’re something a person is afflicted with.
Q10: Where are you in your recovery journey?
N: I’m in the treatment stage and haven’t yet found a way to deal with stigma. I feel it’s harder to open up and enlighten people when I feel triggered. I’m just not comfortable yet.
Q11: What’s your favorite color?
R: Honestly? Rainbows. I need seven colors though: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink. Six is okay, but anything less annoys me.