I Am Mentally Ill, and I Am Also… So Many Other Things

I am mentally ill and I am also... - circle of puzzle pieces

I am mentally ill, and I am also a lot of different things. But do people see all of those things, or mostly just the illness?

We all have many different identities associated with all the social roles that we play; not identities as in personalities, but bundles of knowledge, expectations, patterns of behaviour that are associated with specific roles. These help us navigate the social world and understand the roles of people we interact with. For some of us, mentally ill is one of those identities.

The nature of stigma

It’s the nature of stigma that identities that society has deemed to be deviant are seen as all-consuming. If I have a stigmatized identity, in the eyes of society, that’s all that I am and all that I ever will be until the end of time. That’s not reality-based, but stigma isn’t about reality. Stigma involves stereotypes, and stereotypes aren’t multifaceted the way people are.

One of the ideas behind person-first language is that it portrays a person as being more than just the illness. However, stigma runs deeper than words. If we routinely use adjectives to describe positive and neutral characteristics, using adjectives related to mental illness (e.g. referring to myself as mentally ill) wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for stigma.

Part of challenging stigma is showing people that we’re not just our illness, and we’re not just stereotypes. We are multi-faceted humans, and we are so much more than people’s stigma. To convince people to see beyond stereotypes and see us takes more than just grammatical tweaks. One of the things it takes is being able to move beyond our own self-stigma and see the many sides of ourselves in order to unapologetically project those out into the world.

Our many identities

I’ve put together an identity map exercise, including examples filled out for myself, as part of the stigma reduction toolkit to accompany my new book, A Brief History of Stigma. It prompts exploration of several different aspects of personal and social identity:

  • Roles: What are the different roles that you play?
  • Relationships: What are some of the roles you play in key relationships, e.g. daughter/son, parent, sibling, friend, colleague?
  • Beliefs & values: What are the beliefs and values that act as your compass in life?
  • Interests & passions: What makes your life brighter?
  • Objective personal characteristics: We’ve all got our basic demographic characteristics, e.g. I’m a 40-something Canadian.
  • Subjective sense of self: What is it like to be you on the inside? For example, I see myself as an introvert, and that affects how I see myself in relation to the world.

We’re all a lot of different things, and whether we’re mentally ill or not, no single thing defines us as a whole. The more that we’re able to hang onto that awareness, the better the position we’re in to resist the pull of self-stigma.

The effects of mental illness

Mental illness can affect many different sides of us, but so can other chronic illnesses, significant life events, or roles that we fulfill. There are a lot of things that can have a big impact on our lives both at the time and moving forward, but that doesn’t mean that they fundamentally change the whole of who we are. Having a kid, for example, changes a whole lot of things about a person’s life, but they’re still the same person.

Mental illness changes what I can do, and often changes what I’m interested in doing, and there are certain parts of me that just aren’t accessible anymore. I feel the effects of my mental illness every day, and in every part of my life. Overall, though, I’m still me, and I’m still much more than just the illness.

Role engulfment

Role engulfment is the idea that we can get so caught up in one role that we fulfill that it takes over our whole identity. This is kind of like what stigma does, but it happens internally, rather than having to do with how others view us.

I think it’s so important to hold onto an anchor of self in spite of illness. Having a greater number of role identities actually has a protective effect when it comes to facing stigma, as it can help with framing stigma as something that’s directed at one side of the self (or people’s beliefs about that side of the self) rather than being directed at the self as a whole.

Identifying the illness as being part of the self is not necessarily a bad thing; what seems to be the determining factor there is the perceived legitimacy of stigma. Identifying as being an illness and perceiving the legitimacy of stigma to be high makes for a bad combination.

The many sides of me

I am mentally ill, and I am also…

  • a guinea pig mama
  • a sister
  • an auntie
  • a daughter
  • a friend
  • an author
  • a blogger
  • a retired nurse
  • a Google looker-upper rockstar
  • a reader
  • a continuous learner
  • a science geek
  • an introvert
  • a former solo world traveller who’s been to 5 continents

These are sides of me and roles that I play, but none of them are me in my entirety. No one can fully understand me by only knowing one of those aspects.

Dealing with stigma

When stigma is directed my way, I perceive it as being directed at other people’s conceptions of that mentally ill identity. I don’t see it as being directed at all of the many sides of me. That doesn’t negate the negative consequences of discriminatory behaviours, but it does help me to stay anchored within my self.

Framing stigma makes it easier to get pissed off at people who stigmatize rather than blame myself. Having a strong in-group identification with other people with mental illness can make it easier to tap into a righteous anger response, which is protective against the effects of stigma.

That’s not to say the objective effects of stigma don’t suck; they really do. But that doesn’t mean that people’s stigmatized views of us are correct.

What are some of the many sides of you?

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

28 thoughts on “I Am Mentally Ill, and I Am Also… So Many Other Things”

  1. I don’t feel anybody should be stigmatising you, you’re doing wonderful job with your writing, despite your mental illness.

    I started wondering while reading this whether I feel stigmatised and I decided I don’t, but I guess that would change if people around me saw my history of psychosis as stigmatising.

    I also used to be a solo traveller. It was fun 🙂

  2. I struggle with stigma because it may be perceived, not real.

    Example: I have a hearing loss. I struggle with this to the point of letting it affect my mental health at times.

    People who pass me on the street don’t see the hearing disability nor the related mental health issue. I seem normal-ish to them. (Not really.)

    But the stigma I feel is there affects me emotionally and mentally because I feel myself struggle. Maybe it’s not as visible as a mobility struggle (it isn’t) but at the end of the day my mental capacity to function in a normal-ish capacity diminishes exponentially. People around me interpret my introversion, frustration or pissed-off-ness as “she’s always bitchy at x time”…

    So do I call it out and define myself as exhausted due to the hearing which affects my brain all day? Or is this defining myself by the disability?

    It’s all very confusing.

    1. It is, and invisible stigmas can actually be more damaging than visible ones, because they make people more vigilant and uncertain about whether different social cues relate to the stigma, making it more front of mind.

  3. Legal secretary. Fiction writer. Poet. Blogger. Mom to adult daughters. Grandma! Cat mommy. Friend. Condo owner. Recovering anorectic. Migraine sufferer. Chronic back pain sufferer. Mildish OCD deal-wither…

  4. “Having a strong in-group identification with other people with mental illness can make it easier to tap into a righteous anger response, which is protective against the effects of stigma.”

    I have to say, Dear Lady, that in these past couple of years — as I desperately try to find my writing identity — you have been a touchstone. A continent away though you may be, you have been my in-group.

    I have looked for Borderline support groups in my local area to no avail. It has been through the internet that I have found support, and I truly hope that my new project can someday be as helpful to others as you most definitely are! 🥰

  5. This is sooo helpful. I see thru this that fibromyalgia and depression have to be recognized and dealt with, but do not have to crowd out or carry more weight than other parts of myself. Thanks!

  6. I have more sides than a Rubik’s Cube but ultimately I am first and foremost a human being, and anything more detailed than that is up to other people to name – not that I care what they think. I’m kinda over all this ‘naming’ business – I’m past the stage where I need specificity.

  7. There’s so much more to me, but as one blogger noted, it’s up to the other person to name me. And, when that happens – it’s none of my Business what they may think.

    As well, the view I hold of myself is what really counts. And, if all I sell myself is is as a mentally I’ll person, I am severely cutting myself short.

    Mental illness may play an accentuated role in my identity, but there’s so much more to me.

    This was a great read, and most of what I said you touched upon lol.

    Thank you!

  8. My social anxiety has defined me in social situations. When I am not as social as others, many people are turned off by me. It makes it hard to see myself as being social or help people see there is actually more to me.

    I am a dog mom, writer, girlfriend, sister, daughter, friend, employee

  9. I loved this post. I think it applies to mental health and physical health conditions. The stigma as well as the way our lives can change as a result, like the world getting smaller or our calendars filled with appointments and medications or whatever, can make it feel like a condition we live with is all-consuming. We are far, far more than what we deal with. It’s only one part of it, even if it seems to be a big part. We can’t lose hold of everything else we are, and we certainly can’t let society or so-called medical professionals treat us any less as a result of what we live with. We are still human, we are still unique with our own lives, interests, hobbies and so on.

    Well done, guinea pig mama. xx

    1. Thank you, cat mama!

      “So-called medical professionals” – someone really needs to start a registry to distinguish those asshats from the ones who actually have a clue how to treat people with respect.

  10. Thank you for this piece! I have learned much. Also, thanks to all the commentors as I have been moved by all. I dare not respond to each as would be in here all day! It has done my heart well to see others so open and free to share their struggles and triumphs. Keep going, all. We got this! We CAN and we WILL. Til then, ALL our pieces are altogether lovely, eh?

  11. I completely agree with you. I suffer from mental health but there is also many other parts to me. I am also a human being that deserves to be treated with respect. I so wish Dr’s would get rid of the stigma. I feel like a broken record talking to Dr.s. As soon as they see that label they run to it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard it’s only your mental health.

  12. I love this – it’s so important to highlight that there’s more to one person than mental illness. I’m definitely going to be trying out your exercise! Thank you for sharing x

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