Sunday, November 20, 2011

Coming Out of the...Padded Room

Lately I’ve been thinking of how the stigma of mental illness resembles the shame and secrecy that many gay people carried in the past. As more and more people "came out of the closet" the stigma slowly receded and now gay couples have the right to marry in some states and to serve openly in the U.S. military. In my opinion, today it is more acceptable to tell a co-worker that you’re gay than to tell them you have a mental disorder.

Those of us who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or even obsessive compulsive disorder are hesitant to reveal our illness to our supervisors, co-workers and even friends and family. Fear of being judged and treated differently keeps us in silence. Sensational news stories featuring violent crimes carried out by a mentally ill person reinforce the tendency to stay quiet.

Yet according to a rigorous health survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 2004, an estimated 25 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having a mental illness in the previous year. That means in a room of four people, one of you likely has a mental illness. It could be your teacher, your doctor, your taxi driver or your best friend and you may have no idea.

Professionally, it is especially difficult to admit that you’re living with a mental illness. I wonder “Will it prevent me from getting that promotion? Will I be given less challenging projects? Will I still be invited to Happy Hours? Will people whisper and talk about me behind my back?” Fear of being ostracized, judged and labeled prevents me from coming out to colleagues.

We want to be treated the same as anyone else. Sure we have our faults and weaknesses. We wouldn’t be human without them. But honestly I think I am a better employee, friend, manager and daughter since my diagnosis. Today I appreciate the importance of taking care of myself – eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, working out my problems with friends or a trusted therapist instead of keeping them bottled up inside. And if we don’t stand up and speak out, society will continue to equate mental illness with insane criminals and deranged homeless people living on the streets instead of with successful and competent professionals succeeding in The judgment and fear will be perpetuated indefinitely and change will evade us for years to come.

Jagannath Lamichane started his own NGO - the Nepal Mental Health Foundation - to fight for the rights of the mentally ill in his native country, Nepal. I made his acquaintance on Facebook two years ago when he first embarked on his life’s mission and I recently had the pleasure of meeting him in person. As we sat in an empty diner in Arlington, Virginia watching the spring rain pour outside, he reminded me of our obligation to come out and tell our stories. “That’s the only way the stigma will begin to melt away,” he said. I voiced my hesitation to speak openly about my mental illness among colleagues. “Are you gonna say it in 10 years when it won’t matter anymore?” he asked without judgment. “Or will you say it now?”

I will say it now.

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