A more accepting age? Why stigma is nowhere near a thing of the past


  1. fig. A mark of disgrace or infamy; a sign of severe censure or condemnation, regarded as impressed on a person or thing; a ‘brand’.

Example: 1882   J. H. Blunt Reformation Church of Eng. II. 172   Branded with the stigma of illegitimacy.

Oxford English Dictionary


I’m particularly lucky where stigma is concerned. Despite having had bipolar since early adolescence, generally I have not experienced much stigma and discrimination. Some of it is to do with how open I am (it’s harder for someone to attack you if anything they could potentially use against you is already out in the open) but some of it must just be pure lucky because almost everyone I know who has a mental health condition has experienced much worse stigma. I know people who have been turned down at interview or hounded out of jobs, people who rejected by friends and family, people verbally abused within their communities, people who have had their fitness as parents questioned – all because they had a mental health diagnosis.

How baffling it was, then, to read Elizabeth Day’s Observer article “Robin Williams and the talk of the ‘stigma’ of mental illness” over the weekend. It is Day’s contention that the concept of stigma has been massively oversold in discussion of the death of Robin Williams. “Is there a stigma?” she asks. “The very fact that the internet was abuzz with people sharing their own stories of depression and encouraging others to do the same suggests that, thankfully, we live in a more accepting age. Most of us will know of close friends or family members who have dealt with depression. Some of us, myself included, will have experienced a form of it ourselves…. As a result, I don’t view mental illness as a scary, strange thing or as a form of weakness. Do you? I doubt it.”

Well, here’s one thing, Elizabeth: if you’re bringing up your own mental health but you don’t specify what your experience has been, I can draw two conclusions from this: either your experiences were quite mild, not necessitating a diagnosis or specialist treatment (I suspect this is the case, since further down the article you conflate depression with mental health in general, as if the experience of people with depression is the same as the experience of people with schizoaffective disorder or dissociative identity disorder, in which case you’ve fallen into the age old trap of thinking that because you are “on the spectrum” this gives you insight into the whole thing, just as did Giles Fraser last year). Or you do have a diagnosis, but you’re scared of sharing it in a national newspaper. And that would be – well, the effect of stigma, you see.

I do have a diagnosis and I am willing to talk about it. And although it’s a severe mental health problem, my diagnosis – bipolar mood disorder – is viewed relatively positively by the public. And yet. And yet stigma is a thing, you see. It is very much a thing. How do I know this? Well, despite my celebrity-friendly diagnosis and my relentless determination not to be ashamed of who I am, I have had so very many experiences where I felt marked, felt branded as worthy of less kindness, less respect, less understanding, where I was made to feel one of “them”.

Hooray for you Elizabeth Day if you have never experienced serious mental illness or stigma. But to assume that everyone else, all these people sharing their concerns on social media, must just be wrong because it’s not been your personal experience – that’s like me as a white British woman stating that racism doesn’t actually exist, just because I’ve very rarely experienced it.


If there were no stigma…

…in the 1990s, I would not have felt that sick, hot shame and horror at having a classmate spit at me, “YOU have got some kind of personality disorder.” If there were no stigma a decade later, I would not have so felt marked out by reluctant to share the diagnosis of borderline personality traits I held for many years. Depression, that was one thing. Anxiety, well, I could tell people about that. But disclose that a consultant psychiatrist thought I had something wrong with my personality? No thanks.

…my university GP would not have looked me in the eye and said solemnly, “Are you sure you want to see a psychiatrist? I think you should, but you must know this means a… psychiatric file will be opened up on you.”

…I would have got cards and flowers when I left my last job because I was poorly. No one, not even the team members I directly managed, was ever told that I had been diagnosed with bipolar, nor even that I would not be coming back. I was simply disappeared.

…I would never tense up when hearing of a brutal murder, as I wait for the inevitable opinion on social media and in the comments sections (ahead, of course. of any detail) that the perpetrator must be “psychotic” or a “psycho”.

…I wouldn’t have felt sick with shame and anxiety about having to disclose my past history to a complete stranger to attempt to get health insurance or life insurance, would not have been horrified to have to recount much needed treatment in an open plan office.

…I wouldn’t think twice about applying for an ESTA visa to visit the United States.

…it wouldn’t feel like an issue to answer the question, “Oh dear, have you got a headache?” with, “Oh, no, actually I just need to take my antipsychotics.” I do it, because that’s what I do, I challenge by being quite matter of fact about my life. But I am aware of having to make the conversation matter of fact, having to plaster on a smile and count on being met with a kind response.

…I wouldn’t feel like I was crossing an invisible line of acceptability once I start talking about my persecutory delusions. No matter how safe the space, no matter how committed I am to sharing my story, I have to screw my courage to the sticking place to do this. Every time I do it, I worry about people finally realising I am much more mental than they ever thought, that the respect they had for me will diminish, that I will no longer be able to exercise authority.

…I would never see reputable newspapers misuse the word “psychotic” to mean intensely angry or lacking in empathy. I would never see them use the word “schizophrenic” to describe a schism in the government or the economy. I would never have to cringe at hearing the weather or somebody’s fickleness being described as “so bipolar”. There would be no need for guidance from Time to Change or the Samaritans about how to report mental health issues appropriately (guidelines that were widely ignored in the reporting of Williams’ death).

…I wouldn’t have cringed in my tube seat recently upon hearing a discussion about a man who was such “a nightmare” because he was “a manic depressive”.

…I wouldn’t have to hesitate over every job application before I tick the box marked “disabled” and note my diagnosis. My first meeting with every new line manager would not inevitably involve having to have “the talk”.

…I wouldn’t hate having to ask for my prescribed drugs by name in the pharmacy in case I am overheard.

…I wouldn’t have been written off as ineligible for jury service a few years ago, despite informing the Ministry of Justice that my job at the time was to write reports to advise Crown Court Judges on sentencing (the law has thankfully been changed on this point, but it took a lot of campaigning from the big mental health charities).

…it would feel just as normal to walk into a community mental health clinic or mental health inpatient unit as it does to walk into a GP surgery or an acute hospital outpatient department. It really, really doesn’t. 

…I wouldn’t feel like I have to preempt judgment about why my children don’t live with me full time to prevent assumptions that I have had them taken away by social services.

…I wouldn’t have to read newspaper articles that deny my community’s experience because our voice is considered trustworthy on our own lives.


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
This entry was posted in Activism, Mental health, Politics and current affairs, Stigma and discrimination and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to A more accepting age? Why stigma is nowhere near a thing of the past

  1. Thank you for so succinctly expressing what needs to be heard.

  2. Words cannot express the thanks I have for you writing this in response, but thank you Charlotte xx

  3. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Well said, Charlotte. I was appalled by this piece and even more so because it was in such a reputable newspaper. I’ve experienced stigma especially in the workplace. Stigma exists. Full stop.

  4. Pingback: Selling stigma: Ridiculing and demonising people with mental health problems for fun and profit | Sectioned

  5. Well said! If stigma didn’t exist then people all around the world wouldn’t be fighting so hard to get the bare minimum of treatment. Got a cold? Just head to your GP and get handed a pharmacy of medications and sympathy. Got a mental illness? Here are some hoops to jump through before we tell you that there isn’t enough room in the system for you and you’ll have to fork out hundreds for treatment. Can’t afford it? Oh well I guess that’s too bad then.

  6. Pingback: Stigma and Speaking for Others | Maddening mutterings

  7. I am lucky enough to have avoided the article in question, but completely agree with your post. A close relative of mine still cannot bring himself to tell people he has paranoid schizophrenia, because the stigma around that illness is horrendous.

  8. Reblogged this on Opinionated Ms Me and commented:
    For how many other illnesses would you have to wait 15 months or more for treatment to even begin, unless you were on death’s door? In treating how many other illnesses do we neglect to give patients a range of treatment options? How many other illnesses cost the economy over £100 billion a year, according to the Centre for Mental Health, but are only allocated spending of just £11.3 billion a year? 25% of our population experiences mental health problems each year, and yet mental illness (including dementia), is allocated just 13% of NHS funding.
    Despite a rising demand for services, mental health funding has seen a real-terms cut of 2% in the past 2 years.
    Fewer than 4 in 10 employers say that they would employ someone with mental health problems (http://www.mind.org.uk/media/1081517/Mind-Manifesto-Jun14.pdf) and yet we have people writing articles saying that there is no longer a stigma around mental health!
    Even on a cultural basis, as purplepersuasion quite rightly points out, we jokingly call people ‘mental’ or ‘psychotic’ if they act strangely, we say that we’re ‘depressed’ if we’re having a bad day, we make jokes about suicide, self-harm and ‘mental patients’. We make parties themed around ‘looney bins’ and victorian asylums – and we assume that people with psychosis are violent and dangerous.
    So not only does the stigma most definitely exist, but its prevalence in our general consciousness has filtered through to adversely effect actual treatment of real mental health patients. It’s basically a fucking disgrace!

  9. Ed says:

    You know, I could really take a lot of stigma if my GP took me more seriously.

    I know how you feel about your job though, a similar thing happened to me. 😦

  10. Thanks for writing this; I think you’ve managed to put into words what a lot of us feel but find very difficult to express. 🙂

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think there’s definitely a difference depending on what your diagnosis is as to the stigma you face – as you say, mild/moderate depression/anxiety is much more mainstream these days, but serious mental illness is another sphere entirely. I have a diagnosis of BPD. I want to apply for my MA Social Work (I have worked in a similar unqualified role with children and families for several years, very successfully). I am scared shitless however, because the application requires a medical disclosure to assess your suitability, and I’m terrified they’ll say that having a “disordered personality” makes me unsuitable. And I don’t think this is just be being neurotic, the attitudes of professionals towards BPD are still often terrible, never mind the general public!

    • Hi Anon, sorry you are feeling so scared, I totally understand your fears. I don’t know if this helps but on Twitter I am in contact with quite a few people who are training as SWs or psych nurses who have a serious MH diagnosis. Maybe you’re not a Twitter person, maybe you follow me already! But it just might help to meet others in a similar position?

  12. bethbone says:

    Oh Charlotte – this is an amazing piece of writing x Heartfelt thanks for putting it out there x Stigma exists! And anyone who doubts it’s existence and check their privilege x If stigma didn’t exist I wouldn’t have been told repeatedly on my recovery from life threatening post natal illness that I was “lucky” my husband stood by me… X

    • It was such a shame though that even when so many people copied EH into their tweets saying my piece was spot on, she didn’t want to listen. It’s upsetting when someone uses a platform in a national newspaper to deny others’ experiences!

  13. norm says:

    Thank you for sharing! I just recommended your blog to a RN who works in psychiatry!

  14. This was so perfectly put! In Australia, we’re in the middle of ‘Mental Health Month’ and have just finished ‘Mental Health Week’ in order to raise awareness of mental health. But we don’t need to raise awareness! We are all (unless living under a rock) AWARE of mental health, but many if not most IGNORE it and shame it. Awareness isn’t what mental health needs, what it needs is for the stigmas that surround it to be abolished.
    And you’re right, a lot of people think we live in an age where stigmas surrounding mental health are gone and maybe in some cases and areas they are but they are still there for the most part.
    I remember feeling unbelievably ashamed of having depression and an eating disorder when I was in my teens (and still have the depression) and of being afraid of what my friends would think of me and many of them really did not understand. A few of them alienated me and continued to make me feel like there was something wrong with me and that I should just ‘get over myself’. It wasn’t until one of those friends began to suffer themselves and called on me to help and support them that they turned to me and apologised for what they had said and done because they had ‘never realised what it truly felt like’.
    Stigmas and misconceptions are still such a big issue!

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