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  • Writer's pictureJason E. Fort

The Shadow of Stigma

I wanted to take a moment to attempt to empathize with people with mental illness. After speaking to several people who don't only work with individuals with mental illness, but also struggle day to day with it, I've learned that all of them struggle with this thing called stigma.

I included the link to the dictionary's definition of the word, stigma, and I wanted to perhaps shed some light on this shadow that is cast over so many people in society. I work as a law enforcement officer, and I've always been a student and careful observer of human behavior, and I believe that information can be useful if applied to understanding mental illness. I have also lived with and known family members and friends who have struggled with mental illness in different parts of their lives, and I think that has in turn helped me perform my job better.

From my experience, mental illness can be something that is brought on by outside forces, influence, or events - or it can be something people develop through genetic tendencies, or even from birth. For example, my grandfather was a combat veteran in World War Two. When he returned from the Pacific, all his old friends and family knew right away that he was no longer the same man. I spent an entire year writing a novel based on his life; the only reason I made it a novel was because there were some parts I could only speculate on how actual events took place. But in one chapter, I told the true story about my grandmother's reaction in defense of her husband, after my own uncle referred to his father as 'crazy.' Perhaps one of the most overused terms in history to describe people with mental illness, earned my uncle a hard slap across his face!

"Of all the the dads in the world, why'd mine have to be the one that was crazy?" my uncle asked my grandmother out of frustration, prior to being struck.

Right there is the earliest encounter I know where the shadow of stigma first appeared in our family. That word 'crazy' had a lot to do with it. Other people have heard the word thrown around in similar fashion, especially on the mainstream news. Heck, I remember the first call I went to in law enforcement running full speed, lights and sirens. We responded to a call at a local Walmart for 'crazy combat veteran with knives,' the news called him. I ended up riding in the back of an ambulance with one of the deputies that got injured when he was first on scene. I will never forget that day, because there I was trying to provide encouragement and comfort to a young man I barely knew, all while trying to avert my gaze from the French chef knife embedded to the hilt into the deputy's thigh. Fortunately, although one of the sergeants that responded that day shot the suspect, nobody died. But apparently the man with the knives had served in combat for his country, and came back a broken man. He 'went crazy' inside the store, and threatened the people around him. I think most people can see how that word alone propels the shadow of stigma forward. That shadow makes it hard for people to accept these individuals into society.

But how many of us have ever been inside the head of people when they are at their most vulnerable? Unless you, too, have suffered similar episodes which seem beyond control of those experiencing it, doesn't it seem almost impossible to truly understand or know what it's like? What about people who do strange or risky things without rhyme or reason? Those people who've been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, or manic-depression, have been known to engage in risky sexual behavior, or constant impulsive spending, or new and extreme physical activity that puts their life in danger. What causes their impulses? Here's a question for you; if those people could have these almost inexplicable quirks and impulses, ups and downs, or compulsions taken away, would they do it? Have you ever spoken with these individuals about such things? I have; both family and friends. Let me tell you, they wish the shadow of their mental illness and the labels that come with it would just go away. But I also know that these illnesses are real. I've seen the same person with medicine, and without medicine - and their behaviors and impulses are definitely reduced and less pronounced.

Then there is one of the darkest clouds of all; the stigma of outright depression. Buzzwords like suicide, and desperation or hopelessness might ring a bell, as you imagine statistics from the news. Whether it is a person going through some episodic PTSD, or someone who has lost everything, or someone who has lost hope in living because of the difficulties life has brought, there is this shadow that follows them, even into brighter days, or on to their deathbed. Don't you see? Have you ever tried to imagine what that would be like? What if you were high on life one minute, ready to 'turn a new leaf' on life and enter it with gusto - only to sink into this unexplained sadness, not understanding why you suddenly feel the way you feel? If you've never considered yourself one who struggled with any of these things, have you at least stopped to ask yourself, What do they feel?

I am no expert. I do not have all the answers. I've been asked by some, "Why did God make me this way?" The best I could offer is the theological approach to why God might allow suffering to remain in this world anyway, regarding free will - but that certainly doesn't take their burden, their fears, their desperation, and their worry away. No - the best thing I can recommend to anyone out there, to reduce the stigma from our end; those of us that have either only mildly suffered from this, or not even experienced it at all - is, be a good listener. And for all those strange incidents you hear about in the news, or strange encounters you may even have with others out there, stop and ask yourself, What do they feel? Put yourself in their shoes if you can, as the old cliché goes. Then do the hard thing... imagine it is you. Imagine living under this shadow that comes back every time they find conflict, or injury, or chaos in their lives, due to their illness.

Here's some food for thought: a person who suffers from a chronic illness such as diabetes, has to manage their illness with medicine day in and day out, keeping their blood sugar in check - or they might die. Nobody judges them for it, because that illness mainly affects just them; it doesn't really put anyone else at risk. There is also much more known about the human body, and blood, and sugar, and how our body processes food. But the human mind is still a big mystery. Thoughts and emotions can only be detected, but not read. Brain chemistry can be observed and monitored, and somewhat understood. But until all of us have walked where these people have walked in their own minds, we cannot truly understand exactly what it's like. Remember that the next time you hear someone call somebody else 'crazy.' Remember that when the next news report comes out, about this celebrity or local person who just did something dangerous or wild. I am not suggesting we write everything off to mental illness; I can't afford to have that open of a mind in law enforcement. But I am saying that if we all just do our part to show more empathy and be better listeners, maybe we can force stigma - to cast a smaller shadow.

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