Responding to Stigma

I almost titled this post ‘dealing with stupid people’. But I thought that was a bit unfair. Mental health is such a tricky topic. People often don’t know what to say. It can be a difficult space to navigate. And the difference between a respectful conversation and one that causes offence is often thinner than we would care to admit.

I got inspired to write this post a few months ago when an acquaintance of mine, who knows I have Bipolar, made a very hurtful comment about Bipolar. I was furious. I was in shock. And above all else I felt shamed for who I was. But when I called my partner up (to rant and rave above the conversation) and he asked me how I handled the situation, I realised that my outward behaviour didn’t match my inward world at all; that I had actually handled the situation really well. So I thought I would share with you my guide to responding when someone makes a hurtful or stigmatising remark about mental illness.

Step 1: Remain Calm. 
I can’t stress this enough. If someone already has a negative perception of people with mental illnesses as being unpredictable, raving lunatics…Don’t play into their hand. Take a deep breath, ground yourself and let them finish their point before jumping down their throat.

Step 2. Be Polite and Respectful. 
This is an extension of Step 1. But think of it this way, no matter how valid or true your points may be the other person isn’t going to take them in if they feel attacked. Keep discussion about the topics and don’t attack people personally. This is your opportunity to engage the other person in a discourse surrounding mental health.  So play fair. This is the only way discourse can thrive.

Step 3: Ask Questions. 
I found this step very effective. Instead of telling people why they are wrong, challenge their preconceived notions so that they can see the gaps in their knowledge for themselves. Most of the time people don’t make insensitive comments because they are arseholes. They do it because they don’t know any better. In my case I may ask ‘what makes you think that?’ And they will reflect on their views and reply with something like ‘A, B, C…Is that not right?’ This then provides you the opportunity to move to Step 4.

Step 4. Speak from your own experience. 
There are two reasons I think speaking from your own experience is vital. Firstly, story telling is an exceptionally valuable tool in making people change their minds. It makes the object of their disdain more human and more relatable. Believe me when I say that your story can change lives. (Of course it goes without saying that you should only share what you are comfortable sharing). The other reason it is important to speak from your own experience is that you are an expert on you and you alone. You do not speak for everybody with a mental illness or your diagnosis. Even for myself, it is my job to get up and talk about mental illness on my blog and other platforms, but I can only speak for me. Speaking for the collective paints everyone with one colour and can actually lead to further stigmatisation and homogenisation.

If you follow all of these steps you should hopefully have a rewarding discussion with another human being and maybe change their way of thinking. And if not, at least you stood up for what you believe in.

But then again, don’t feel pressured to stand up and speak if you are not feeling up to it at the time. You don’t need to be a hero.  Please don’t ever feel like it is your responsibility to educate people. If sometimes someone says something insensitive and you are hurt you are justified in just stewing on that hurt. You don’t always have to be an advocate. Take care of yourself and be mindful of your own headspace before embarking on any of these steps. Sometimes it just might not be the right day for making yourself vulnerable through that discussion.

With that being said, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you simply can’t resist getting in on those tough conversations. And if that is the case I hope this guide can be a way for you do this in a way that is respectful of others but also yourself.


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