I have always been honest about my mental illness. Since being diagnosed nearly six years ago, when I was sixteen, I have made a good faith effort to be forthcoming with anyone who asked. Though I never have publicized my condition unless it was relevant, I have never hidden it. That is, until now. And even now, I’m not hiding it as much as I could be–after all, I’m writing this blog, and the Internet is not known for its anonymity. What changed? Well, I’m pursuing a graduate degree in what is technically a mental health field. One wouldn’t expect such a place to be so judgmental, but expectations are often wrong.
I walked into the orientation for my program thrilled at the prospect of finally stepping onto the Path of Academia. I walked out terrified. Not because of the daunting workload or the intimidating professors, but because of the Fitness to Practice speech given rather threateningly by the director of the program. Fitness to Practice typically refers to the ability of the person practicing in their field, in this case psychology, to be professional, competent, do well academically, adhere to ethical standards, and be emotionally and mentally fit. He made it quite clear that we will be tossed out on our backsides if they find out we aren’t “emotionally well” and they decide we can’t handle it. Of course, it’s up to them who can handle it and who can’t, and I imagine it would be heavily subjective. I imagine those who would be safe would only be those who had the “good excuse” of having a family member pass away or a tragic event occur. Obviously, those are completely valid. They shouldn’t, however, be the only reasons that are valid. From what was said during the speech, even those with conditions that are often thought of as being the “good” sorts of mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, would have to fear the Fitness to Practice hammer. Those condtions are agonizing for many, and they are struggles, but we think of them in our society as the more benign of the mental illnesses, the ones that aren’t threatening. While they are still very heavily stigmatized, they don’t typically carry the violent and aggressive stereotypes that other conditions do.
To be entirely forthcoming, I will disclose that I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar I Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m a bag of mixed nuts! I’ve got bats in my belfry! I hit two out of the three in the big trifecta of Scary Crazy People. The other one, for the record, is schizophrenia, which I do not have as of yet. Two of my diagnoses, Bipolar I and Borderline Personality Disroder, are extremely stigmatized. They’re the “scary” illnesses. I’m completely fine with my diagnoses, and I am very high-functioning. While I do not work, I go to school full time and I am involved in numerous volunteer activities. My illnesses help to make me who I am, and while they can be horrible to deal with, I would not trade them. Sure, I’d like to get rid of a few (I’m looking at you, PTSD!), but they are a part of me I have grown quite used to. Over the years I have learned to cope with my illnesses. I know what works for me, I have strategies and techniques taught to me by various therapists, and I have a strong and wonderful support system. But I’m still scared, because I know that university administrators and many advisors/professors, no matter what their discipline, see me and think “AHHHH! Liability! Get it away!”
And yet I have been working and volunteering in the mental health field for years now, and it has never been a problem for me. I know when to back up when things get too heavy, and I know when to call it quits if that’s what’s in my best interest. When I was in the throes of a vicious eating disorder, something I have written a little bit about before, I knew that it was in my best interest to take a semester off of school, even if it meant that I would not graduate as early as I would have liked. Now I’m scared I wouldn’t be able to safely do something like that without getting kicked out of my program, because even in a field where the stigma against mental illness should be understood, it is not. I have professors who refuse to use person-first language, where we say things like “a woman with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic” in order to preserve dignity and ensure that it is known we are talking about a human being with a condtion. It is so important never to define someone by their illness. And yet, I have professors who talk about “those Borderlines” and I know people who have professors who talk about “the crazies.” Sitting in class and feeling like you are being personally villified is an indescribable feeling. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m scared all at once. It has always been in my nature to speak out against injustices. I routinely call out classmates and professors on misogyny, racism, classism, you name it. But I can’t do it here. I have to stay silent. I know they can’t look at me and see the loose screws in my brain, but I feel like if I speak up, I’m going to be found out.
So, have any of you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear in the comments about whether anybody else has experienced this sort of stigma. What happened? What did you do? The more we speak out, whether it is anonymous or not, the better the message is heard.