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Stigma Makes Mental Illness Feel Like a Confession

February 24, 2020 Laura A. Barton

Letting others know you have a mental illness can feel like a confession because of stigma. Telling someone about the illness for the first time can be a large, daunting task because of this feeling that you're revealing a deep, dark secret. This is because stigma tells us that reactions to mental health struggles will always be negative.

Opening Up About Mental Illness Is Scary

I grew up with a lot of negative reactions to my mental illnesses, in particular excoriation (skin-picking) disorder. I was the weird kid, the one with the disgusting "habit." The negative reinforcement from my family, which I recognize now as misguided attempts to get me to stop what they saw as a dangerous habit, left me feeling like I was a bad, weak person who couldn't control myself.

This resulted in feelings of terror when even considering telling someone else about my mental health struggles. These reactions, and the mental health stigma that bred some of them, made the whole experience of being sick and telling someone else about it scary. Revealing there's something about you that people react to so negatively becomes a moment of confession because there's this fear of being seen in a new, negative light ("Sharing Your Mental Health Story If You're Afraid of Stigma").

How Confessing Your Mental Illness Affects Both You and the Other Person

I came across a meme that depicted, in summary, a person disclosing mental illness to a potential love interest preparing to be abandoned ("Borderline and Relationships: The Fear of Abandonment"). That resonated deeply with me as for the first several years of my relationship, I didn't talk about my mental illnesses, especially the skin picking because of that kind of fear. What would confessing to having these issues make me lose?

I showed the meme to my boyfriend with a light chuckle of "this was totally me" and his response took me a bit aback.

"What did I ever do?" he asked. 

His concern was what impression of himself did he give me that I would have thought that. It's an incredibly valid question.

These kinds of thoughts—about being abandoned for confessing having mental health struggles—are less about the other person and more about the stigma we've faced. It's about the stigma that says having a mental illness is something we should not talk about. Additionally, it's about how others have reacted before.

Discussing 'Confessing' Mental Illness Helps Create Understanding

When the only outcome you've known to "confessing" your mental illnesses is repulsion or rejection, it seems that's what everyone will do regardless of their character. The only possible outcome seems to be negative and anything else is a pipedream. It's something you believe in your core.

These days, I don't think of revealing mental health struggles as a confession, but I understand why it feels that way since I've been there. After that conversation with my boyfriend, I began thinking about how these conversations are an important part of understanding one another and the impact that mental health stigma can have on us all. In having these conversations, those we're speaking with can understand how stigma silences people and for those of us making the "confession," we can begin to understand that mental health stigma isn't always true. With these levels of understanding, challenging mental health stigma becomes easier.

When have you felt like you had to confess your mental illness? How did the person react? Share your stories in the comments.

APA Reference
Barton, L. (2020, February 24). Stigma Makes Mental Illness Feel Like a Confession, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2020/2/stigma-makes-mental-illness-feel-like-a-confession



Author: Laura A. Barton

Laura A. Barton is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Ontario, Canada. Find her on Twitter, FacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.

Michel Marion
July, 13 2022 at 5:45 pm

Back in 1992 I had a tumour removed from the right frontal lobe of my brain. That caused me to have bi-polar illness. Within 2 months of the surgery I suffered 3 suicide attempts. I was placed in the psychiatric ward of the hospital to rid me of my depression. Nothing seemed to work until they tried me on Lithium. Bonus BIG time. I was on it for years but my shrink was afraid of me getting kidney damage from the high dose I was on, so she put me on valproic acid. Better stuff 4 me. Happy pills now! But my younger brother thought I couldn't manage my money right so he made himself my financial trustee and power of attorney. He is such a control freak and is now the administrator of my computer to say the least. I am such a sensitive and caring person that he doesn't trust my new friendships. Yet, II learned in therapy that the best way to help those in need is to be a good listener & not try to give advice. True, I've been burned in the past with that behavior but I have helped a lot of people learn to love themselves 1st & keep the lines of communication honest with their care givers. Time heals a lot of wounds. I've also told some to keep their prayer life active. Prayers do eventually get answered if we've got God on our side a good part of the time. We may not get instant answers from God but in the end it all works out for the best. I am still a happy camper.

Sarah
February, 25 2020 at 5:58 am

about this mess called my life:
"So why do I feel the necessity to share my personal thoughts and feelings with the internet? I don't really know. Self-therapy I guess. With the hope that the person reading this knows how to deal with life (because I don't) and might want to help me out. Basically, I am not trying to give advice to anyone. I'm asking for it."
https://snidod.wixsite.com/thismesscalledmylife/post/what-am-i-doing-here

Lizanne Corbit
February, 24 2020 at 2:55 pm

This is such a well-crafted read about something that is so true, but probably not realized by many. The "confession" energy around discussing mental health is very real. This may be one of those things that we feel but don't really put a name to, thinking about in terms of a confession really provides a clear lense for how this can be negative and why a shift in perspective is needed. Wonderful read.

February, 25 2020 at 6:57 pm

Thank you! That’s exactly what I was going for with this one. I’m glad the message came through and hopefully it can help people when it comes to discussing mental health.

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