The Stigma Within

Advocates for mental and emotional health proclaim their goal: eliminate the stigma of illness from society. But first, I think we need to focus closer to home; overcoming the stigma within.

See, long before society can stick us men in cages, making it hard to be open about our needs for diagnosis and treatment, we build our own cages of stigma that prevent us from accepting those needs in ourselves.

I sure did.

Changing How We See Others

You've seen those Facebook memes, right? The ones that praise and even glorify putting on a smile when you're falling apart, telling people you're fine when you aren't, making sure you only cry in private.

Constantly hiding one's mental or emotional distress is seen as some kind of social necessity, a strength to be admired.

I don't think that's healthy.

And behind that fear of what others might think, lurks this fear of what I think.

What if people think I'm crying to get sympathy or pity? What if they think I'm lazy or a hypochondriac? I have to keep up appearances so people don't think I'm weak or weird. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone. If anyone asks how I am, I'll always tell them “I'm fine.”

Please ask yourself: who do I owe a constant smiley face if I'm not feeling it? Whose emotional maintenance is truly more important to me than mine? Who deserves to see me only in artificially maintained terms?

My kids have seen me express difficult emotions, which freed them to express theirs. My coworkers have seen me break down with anxiety, unable to breathe. My fiancee has seen me suffer emotional collapse.

None of them have turned on me, or thought less of me. That helps them see me as an authentic person, and frees them to be authentic too.

Changing How We Look at Self

The biggest hurdle was the first one - coming to terms with the existence of my own illness - bottled-up anxiety which morphed into depression.

Here in the American Midwest, there are expectations of being male; don't cry, don't let anyone see you struggling to cope. As children we were taught to deny.

But why? I don't deny my broken leg, the itchy rash covering my body, or my 103 degree fever. Just like in society, the visible ailments are so much easier to acknowledge. If only we started off seeing our mental or emotional health crisis for what it is: an illness to be identified and treated.

But that's not usually how we see it at first, is it?

If I hear voices, if I can't fight my way out from under a pernicious cloud of depression, if I cycle between extreme emotional states, or if I suffer trauma from abuse - I could see it as something 'defective' with me as a person.

Instead of seeing symptoms of illness, I saw personal weakness, personal failing, lack of worthiness, a skewed sense of self and self-worth.

I won’t 'act depressed' around people so that I don't burden them with my problem. I won't tell anyone I think about jumping off a bridge. I'll make sure I cut myself in places where my clothing covers it up, so no one will see….

Moving Towards Health

When my fear of labels or of other people's judgments becomes stronger than my desire to get healthy, that's when stigma wins - not society's unwillingness to accept it, but mine.

If you love someone who’s at that point, it's no longer about fundraisers or slogans. It's about helping your friend, your child, your loved one, or even yourself accept the reality of mental or emotional illness and seek help.

I don't want anyone's fear - not society's, not my own - of these illnesses to keep me locked in a cage of suffering. That doesn't mean forcing a situation if I'm not ready, as that can make things worse. However, it also doesn't mean saying “I'm not ready yet” as a never-ending delay to keep from taking that first step into the scary territory of acknowledgement and change.

International organizations are already taking the fight to society. Let's make 2016 the year we - as individuals - reach out to those who need help breaking the stigma of how mental and emotional health issues are seen and faced.

And that effort, friends, starts with the self.

I'm sure everyone reading this will relate to what David is saying. How has stigma affected you? How can we do more to tackle it? How does stigma manifest itself in your country? Let us know in the comments below.

A big 'thanks y'all' to David for his insightful blog. You can keep up with David on Twitter where he's @DavidWJones2016