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