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OP-ED | Mental Health Is No Laughing Matter - It’s Time to End the Stigma

by | Jun 27, 2014 9:37am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Health Care, Mental Health Care, Opinion, Health Care Opinion

In last week’s column about Task Force to Study the Provision of Behavioral Health Services for Young Adults report, I wrote openly about my own struggles with the mental health system. In other words, I admitted publicly that I, too, have had issues with mental health. This isn’t something new. It’s a conscious choice I made over a decade ago around the time of my hospitalization, when I saw the stigma those around me, including even some who loved me and were most close to me, had about mental health issues.

I knew then that for me to be healthier, for society to be healthier, this would have to change.

It’s not a choice I regret often — mostly because I’m powered by a sense of purpose. One of my favorite quips is that “God gave me a gift, the ability to express myself in writing, and then decided to give me plenty of ‘material’.”

But joking aside, I’ve seen how my choice to be open and honest about my mental health challenges — and the fact that I am now a successful author leading a healthy and productive live — has helped so many others. Even from the very beginning, before I had achieved the success I have now, I had people who had undergone similar struggles writing to me telling me I was brave, and thanking me for being open in a way that they felt unable to because they were afraid of the repercussions.

I drew on my experiences recovering from bulimia to write a young adult novel, PURGE, and I have had young people writing to me from inside eating disorder treatment facilities after reading it, asking me for advice on how I was able to finally conquer the insidious voice inside. I always write back. Adult women approach me and speak to me about their own struggles with eating disorders — always in hushed tones, because shame and stigma are still so prevalent.

In my young adult novel WANT TO GO PRIVATE?, which deals with a 9th grader who becomes involved with an Internet predator, one of the most difficult scenes for me to write was the one that only appears in the novel in flashback, and which wasn’t in the first few drafts of the novel at all. My editor commented after reading the book when I turned it in, “It seems like they just went on a car ride together.”

I realized I hadn’t wanted anything to happen to the protagonist, because it would mean facing my own demons of childhood sexual abuse. It took me almost a month to write that scene, because I had started having post traumatic nightmares, but as a result I have girls writing to me saying they were talking to a guy online, but now they’ve blocked him — or that they’re worried about a friend and they plan to pass the book on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people approach me privately after I’ve spoken publicly about having been hospitalized, to thank me for doing so, sotto voce with tears in their eyes, and admitting that they, too, and been through the same experience.

Next month, I’m excited to start to work with the organization Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, not just because I know how effective books can be as both a mirror of one’s self and a window to a different, better life, but because I hope to transmit to them that I am a living example of the Maya Angelou quote I have pinned above my desk,: “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”

After last week’s column, one of CTNewsJunkie’s regular commenters decided it would be amusing to use the information about my past struggles with mental illness as a weapon.

“I would never accuse Sarah of critical thinking or ethics, that is just crazy!” this person wrote. “Take your meds and stop MIS-judging others.”

The comment was deleted, but it inspired me to write this column because it reminded me why people are so afraid to be open and honest about their struggles with mental illness, and why people are even afraid to seek help.

I also found it highly ironic, because the same person who made this comment is extremely pro 2nd Amendment, and of course blames everything on mental health issues, rather than guns.

To the cowards who post such things anonymously online, you can’t have it both ways. If you want to blame the significant problems we have in the country with gun violence on mental illness, then you shouldn’t be making stupid comments stigmatizing mental illness. I hope the Sandy Hook Commission takes this kind of problem into account when making their final recommendations.

I do take my meds. I see my therapist. I am a successful, productive, taxpaying member of society, raising two children and using the experiences I have been through to try to help ease the pain of others. Perhaps the folks telling me to take my meds and calling me crazy should take a good long look in the mirror.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

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(19) Archived Comments

posted by: MomofTwins1970 | June 27, 2014  12:47pm

Thanks for this.  The stigma that surrounds mental illness needs to be abolished.  My 21 yr old son is bipolar and its been a long hard road fighting for treatment, the closure of facilities that there is a great demand for.  My hope is the more we talk about it openly the quicker we knock the walls down.

posted by: SocialButterfly | June 27, 2014  1:26pm

Sarah:  You deserve credit for having the courage to exposing your personal hardships in life to conclude your excellent review on mental health.
Keep up the good work.

posted by: DanofiveO | June 27, 2014  6:36pm

Dear Sarah,
I like reading your column and I am sorry you took a couple hits from people who should know better than to be rude or mean.
I know that the mental health and the pharmaceutical companies would like everyone who feels anxious, sad, angry or paranoid to either have counciling or drugs and I feel it’s a disgusting practice and should be ended in most cases. Sometimes I get sad when I think of relationships gone bad which are irretrievable or angry when the economy fails to get out of the dumps after 6 years.  I don’t run out to blubber to a therapist, think carefully about folks in that industry many are far crazier and their lives more messed up than the people sitting on their couches. They tells stories of their crazy whining clients while they get drunk and screw there kids up. Nor do I drink to excess, drug myself with pot or run out looking for psyche meds. I take my golden retriever for a walk in the woods, I go fishing or treat myself and the kids to an ice cream. Skeet shooting is a blast too and I often feel much better busting some clays. ( I thought we ought to add a gun in the story to get the debate cranked up ) Earlier in life I found Karate and found that doing the Kata or forms always helped me refocus and feel better and in control of my emotion and self. 
As a musician I would write an angry song or a sad song which really conveyed the emotion which brought me satisfaction.
People today are too quick to meds and are always looking externally for the answer. If you didn’t feel ever feel sad you wouldn’t know how great feeling good is. Imagine a world where every song was a Katy perry song? Yuk! Listen to the blues and realize that there are people far worse off than you or that maybe your just being a little self absorbed?
If you weren’t anxious about something it might not feel as Important to you. Things taste better when your hungry and on and on.
So pick up your pack, throw the meds in the trash, tell the therapist to take their own advice and return to humping that pack up the hill soldier! Who is in control of you? You are! Nothing ever changes that. Mind over matter, you direct your life and destiny. So slide down in the driver seat of your life, put that sucker in gear and leave all that garbage in the rear view laying out on route 66 for someone else to waste their life on. Once you adopt this mentality you will direct your life as you see fit and life is much richer at least to me it is.
Best, me to you!

posted by: RogueReporterCT | June 27, 2014  10:36pm


Hello, brave gunslinger woman. You seem to have run the gamut of the human experience. Any club of which you are a member…
Two days ago I walked out of one of the state’s better DHMAS facilities because I felt it wasn’t right for me. Long story short, we have a very long way to go before we can say that we have made real progress on mental health. There are many stigmas that exist outside the system, and many that linger within the system, ones that inhibit the effective identification and treatment of mental illness. Indeed, to be perfectly FRANK, I could sympathize with anyone who might consider resisting treatment, and this is based upon what is probably top-level care at one of the Hartford area’s most best hospitals and one of the most respected organizations that work under the DHMAS umbrella. Please give me your recommendations for groups that do mental health advocacy. I really think that this is something that needs to be tackled from all possible angles with all possible resources. I am liking the billboards, but the problem is so far from licked, it’s, well, insane. -Rogue

posted by: RogueReporterCT | June 28, 2014  12:49am


You’re welcome -John Hodgman

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | June 28, 2014  1:21pm

DanoFiveO - With all due respect, I know you mean well, but that kind of advice is extremely problematic, and is part of the stigma that people like me have to put up with all the time and it actually makes me furious. It is actually irresponsible and DANGEROUS. After my divorce, when my life settled down, and I was on a more even keel, I actually did what you suggested, after talking it through with my psychiatrist of course, because I’m not irresponsible enough to “throw my meds in the trash”. (BTW, have you ever thought that’s how some of these mass shootings occur? Because people who SHOULD be on meds and in therapy have done exactly what you told me to do?)  Well, I titred off my meds as guided by my doctor, and you know what? It wasn’t a good experiment. And then I felt like a failure. Because of people like you who are like “OMG, you should be able to just write a song or go for a walk or shoot a clay!” But you know what? There are people like me whose brains actually need a certain something that these meds give me. And after I felt like a failure for a few days, I suddenly realized, “What am I nuts? If taking a few pills every days is what it takes to help me be a successful, functioning human being, then write me the fricking prescription!” People with diabetes take insulin and nobody gives them shit and tells them to “get over it!” People with high blood pressure take meds and nobody tells them to go shoot clays and man up. So you can have your conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies,  but frankly, you are part of the very problem I am talking about in this piece.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | June 29, 2014  1:03am

Rouge - I support NAMI, particularly after the death of my fellow YA author Ned Vizzini last year. I took that very hard - he was such a lovely, bright guy, and so incredibly talented. : (

posted by: SocialButterfly | June 29, 2014  9:45am

Sarah: Please keep up your ongoing crusade with mental health as you have plenty of first hand seasoned knowledge and ammunition to continue on.

posted by: RogueReporterCT | June 29, 2014  7:44pm


Sarah, You really need to check out this comment in the Courant. http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/letters/hcrs-20810—20140625,0,1796963.story#vcomment

posted by: NoNonsense2014 | June 29, 2014  8:52pm

@ Sarah: You GO, girl! Bless you!

posted by: SocialButterfly | June 29, 2014  9:01pm

Sarah:  Great response to DanofiveO.

posted by: DanofiveO | June 29, 2014  11:23pm

Oh Sarah, where should I start…
Great ! Some anger! I have hit a nerve and you can change for the better, now I’m sure of it!
I will be 50 this year. I have a depth of knowledge on screwed up therapists, people prescribed meds and becoming dependent them and being enrolled into the “mental health system”  I have a family member that went on anxiety meds and off and on and is totally screwed up from it. I don’t want to belittle your experience or understate your efforts to get off the meds. I do want to empower you though and I strongly feel that you can do it. You may have to try to wean off, like a junky you may feel bad for sometime maybe a long time . The psyche drugs mess up your brain they are too powerful, addictive, engineered and experimented on people. There are reams and volumes of people on these meds that have freaked out and killed people. Why do you feel the therapist knows more than you do about the abuse you suffered? Because they took a college class? You suffered abuse how could they possibly give you advice they didn’t live it. They are vultures preying on people at their most vulnerable, the worst of the worst.
Why do you trust people you don’t know to expose your most intimate secrets to only to write all your thoughts and horrific secrets down to review with colleagues or use to get more insurance money? Mental health is an industry like the prison industrial complex like the pharmaceutical industry and they constantly need new meat for the grinder. ADHD kids, sad divorced people, kids whose parents never gave them the time of day and wonder why they are screwed up. At a time in your life when you were in crisis, when you were most vulnerable you sought help and were enrolled, drugged and became another folder in your therapists file cabinet. There is no motivation for them to help you to get better as you are a revenue stream. Should you be lucky enough and figure out what is/has happened to you perhaps you can break free. Don’t stop trying to break free.
I know you think I’m wrong but I’m not and given your strength I think you can beat these people and be free of the whole stinking mess.
The system is the problem it’s a bourgeois luxury that takes advantage of people in crisis.
I’m not an evil guy I honestly believe you are being taken advantage of and I don’t like that.
Also the progress you have made, YOU made and you can make more progress sans therapy.
You have wonderful talents and should be helped to fly again not enrolled to trick/encourage others to become victims of the system too.
You can rail against me but I won’t give up on you. I like your writing style and should not be hobbled by the system. Like a beautiful bird you should be free to fly not trapped in a gilded cage and milked to support a corrupt system with no consideration of your sanctity of being.
Fight back don’t let the DSM psyche manual define all you are, you’re too smart.
Happiness to you Sarah
Best from me, really.

posted by: Joebigjoe | June 30, 2014  6:47am

I appreciate your comments Sarah and no one knows their situation and needs better than you do.

However, lets face a few facts here.

The pharma companies have encouraged more people than need to, to take meds when other methods would work with less risk.

Its not all psychiatrists but many of their kids are messed up. I have seen too many examples in my life to not feel that way.

There is a stigma in society about mental illness and I applaud your thoughts on that. I actually think in the next two decades that mental illness will get far worse and it wont be because we are better at diagnosing it.

We have millions and millions of young people that are not being raised right by their parents and are exposed to so many adult level “stories and situations’ at ages where they can’t handle it whether it be in the media or in school.

They sit next to “friends” texting them rather than looking at them and talking, there is anxiety about the future being pumped into them by global warming activists that their lives are going to be horrible. We see mass shootings and mass shootings that are planned and dont place. There is a big issue with young people that want to take out alot of other people and not just the one person that they may hate.

posted by: SocialButterfly | June 30, 2014  9:26am

Sarah: It’s not all about you. Why aren’t you questioning the dubious mental health of of our current Malloy administration and the brain-dead mental miscues that they have buried this state with to our current fiscal disaster? Please try to apply your personal mental expert experience to help solve the mental breakdown of our leadership.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 1, 2014  1:49pm

Dano - again, I truly believe you mean well, and I take your comments in that spirit. However, I don’t feel I have been “tricked” or I am a “bird in a cage”. The cage, as far as I am concerned, was my depression. The cage, was feeling like my kids would be better off without me. THAT was the cage. And your view of mental health professionals is not my experience, not by a long way. You may have encountered some ineffective ones, but I work with mine as a team. And we are a good team. We work together. They aren’t “milking” me. I have had periods where I don’t need therapy, and I’ve learned when to go back, because it helps. Depression is a far, far worse cage than any medication I am taking. Finding the right combination of medication, for me, was the key OUT of the cage. So maybe that isn’t the solution for you, but to try to tell me that is wrong, to make out that this is all part of some grand conspiracy on the part of healthcare companies and big pharma, is part of what stigmatizes people with very real mental health conditions. Yes, I am smart. And I am smart enough to know that I have tried it your way, and I am much more successful, both on an emotional and a career basis when I do it this way. I’m not a poor bird in a cage that needs rescuing. I’m a smart, successful woman, who has overcome many challenges to get where she is in life, in no small part due to the help of her mental health team. In fact, my second book, PURGE, is dedicated to the therapist I was seeing at the time.

posted by: Joebigjoe | July 1, 2014  2:21pm

I’ll probably create a mini firestorm here but did you know that a high percentage of distance athletes (runners and cyclists) suffer from depression. For some it’s about being in shape and taking on challenges, but for many it’s about the chemical changes in their body that takes place that helps them fight depression and other mental ailments.

Unfortuntately they need that endorphin high and when they get injured or older and the body can’t handle it, the depression comes back in waves. Lots and lots of newly depressed 50 somethings that can’t self medicate with fitness.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | July 1, 2014  2:53pm

Joe - I can see that. I used to play a lot of tennis. Very therapeutic and great exercise - until tennis elbow, from both tennis and constant computer use (job hazard) took that joy away from me. I’m actually going to try playing Thursday for the first time in two years and know I’ve got to ice right afterwards. The Rolling Stones had the part about getting old right. It’s a drag. The wisdom is great, but the aches and pains suck! : )

posted by: Joebigjoe | July 1, 2014  3:09pm

I’m hoping after two years that your tendonitis is gone. Dont overdo it and you might be fine.

My issue is my right scapula where for hours a day I reach to move the mouse. Still causes issues no matter how close I put the mouse and I have big fingers so need the mouse.

posted by: Jthinker | July 4, 2014  1:28pm

Those who believe that “you are in control” ought to read the latest information coming out of the neuroscience field. It is looking pretty clear that we humans don’t have all that much control over ourselves. There may even be no actual “free will”. But we continue to point fingers at those who struggle with mental illness, as if those people can just will the problems away. The brain is an organ, like the kidney or the liver. It is more complex than any other organ but like all other biological entities, it is subject to glitches, and environmental influence over which said owner has no control. The main reason for stigmatizing of mental illness, is fear. If we accept that it actually exists, then, because we all possess brains, none of us is exempt from having a mental illness. And that would of course prove we “have no control” over ourselves.

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