“There’s Glory in Sharing Your Story” is an anti-stigma campaign started by Sue at My Loud Bipolar Whispers… hope for Mental Health Month this May. I love this idea, and I wanted to jump right in and share my story.
My name’s Ashley, and I write under my first and middle name, ashleyleia, on my blog Mental Health @ Home. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and I’m a mental health nurse and proud guinea pig mama. I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 2007.
When I first got sick, I refused to admit it to myself. Once it became too obvious to ignore, I thought I should be able to deal with it myself, since that’s what I did for a living. After my first suicide attempt, I managed to come up with the “right” (aka wrong) things to say to keep myself from being admitted to the psych ward. After a second suicide attempt, though, I did end up hospitalized. I had so much self-hatred, shame, and guilt at that time, a lot of which was tied into self-stigma. I fought the treatment team every step of the day, and while electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) helped somewhat, overall it was a very negative experience. Several months after discharge I had another suicide attempt and then stopped taking medication, but still I managed to achieve full remission.
Almost four years later, I had a recurrence of my illness. It came out of nowhere, and within a few weeks of developing symptoms I ended up in hospital. The next year and a half were rough, with a suicide attempt and two more hospitalizations. I achieved full remission again, but it was a tenuous hold on wellness. My most recent recurrence was triggered in spring 2016, and I continue to have symptoms. Full remission is beginning to look less and less likely.
It was difficult initially to shift my sense of identity from being a “normal” person to being a person with a mental illness, and also a mental health nurse with a mental illness. What has helped the most in integrating that new identity has been opening up about my illness. I’ve faced stigma, primarily from my employers, but I’ve also gotten a lot of support. And talking about my mental illness has allowed me to add yet another role identity: advocate.
Where I believe I’ve had the most impact in sharing my story has been with my patients (a term I use to describe a role identity rather than the person as a whole). It has served to reduce the power differential and sense of “us versus them”, allowing me to be more effective and empathetic as a nurse and allowing my patients to feel respected and understood. I support my patients in raising their own voices to stand up for themselves and their choices, because I have experienced firsthand how devastating it can be to have choice taken away.
It’s important for our society to accept that mental illness can and does happen to anyone. For that to happen, we as a community of people living with mental illness need to raise our voices. Research has shown that the best way to challenge mental illness stigma is for people to be exposed to individuals with mental illness. Yet that only works if we make ourselves known as people with mental illness.
Speaking up is not necessarily something that will feel right, safe, appropriate, or doable for all people at all times. And that’s completely ok; it just means the rest of us have to speak a little bit louder.