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Living with stigma of mental illness Jane Hipkins Sobie: Living with mental-illness stigma

Winston-Salem Journal - 6/23/2018

It hit close to home. Again. Suicide. Designer Kate Spade. Then beloved celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain. Both vibrant, colorful, compassionate and fun. Kate's polka-dotted dinnerware graces my table.

Those of us with bipolar disorder often radiate those qualities, too. But the flip side of living with this insidious illness, woven through our veins like intricate French lace, is the abysses of depression we experience. Tragically it also devours lives. Like my grandmother's, who died by suicide, and one of my twin sons, Steven, who took his life at age 27.

Suicide is a whisper word in our culture. It carries more stigma than the ocean is deep. We are a feel-good culture, a quick-fix society that pops pills like M&M's. Our mantra: Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, for Pete's sake.

While celebrity families receive an outpouring of love and support from fans after their loved one's suicide, with shrines of flowers on their doorsteps, non-celebrity grieving families don't.

Raised eyebrows and judgment often replace compassion. Armchair psychiatrists, who don't understand the complexities of mental illness or a suicidal death (no one completely does) often blame the victim, parents or family.

After my son died, a counselor suggested I go to a grief support group for parents who lost a child. During the introductions, when I said Steven died by suicide, the woman across from me screamed, "Shame on him. That was his choice. My daughter was murdered." I burst into tears. Never returned.

A few days after Kate Spade died, a woman behind me in the grocery store line was gazing at tabloids about Spade's suicide. "Attention getters," she sniffed. Not one to generally disclose personal information to strangers, I said, "I lost a son to suicide, and I have bipolar disorder." Stunned, she replied, "You don't look like you have bipolar." Stigma.

On more than one occasion after a suicide, I've heard, "They took the easy way out."

According to Cyndi Briggs, licensed professional counselor and faculty member at Walden University, "When something awful happens to other people like suicide, our brains automatically kick into judgment mode, to distance ourselves from the reality. 'That person killed himself because he was depressed and didn't seek treatment. I wouldn't do that.'" Thoughts like this, she says, make us feel superior and safe. "But, of course, we're not safe," Briggs adds. "It's just mental gymnastics."

When I was diagnosed with bipolar 30 years ago it was called manic-depression. In the 1990s, I was hospitalized for suicidal depression. What made my pain so intolerable was the belief that no remedy would come - not in a day, an hour, a month, a minute. In my mental fog I thought, as many suicidal minds do, that everyone would be better off without me.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 45,000 people took their lives in 2016. But the real figure for completed suicides may be as high as three to five times that number, says the National Office for Suicide Prevention. Many go unreported because of the stigma.

Suicide has surpassed war as the leading cause of death among veterans. Roughly 22 take their life each day, outranking war, cancer, heart disease and transportation accidents.

I never use the term "commit suicide" because "commit" connotes criminal behavior. Unfortunately many still believe suicide is a crime and immoral. Until we educate ourselves on mental illness and suicide, and acknowledge, with empathy, the difficulties of people affected by them, we cripple our hearts.

After years of intentional self-care, including taking medications and seeing a fine psychiatrist and therapist, I am a grateful, healthy woman. My bipolar mood swings are minimal.

We all know someone who has died by suicide or suffers from a mental illness. If it's you, I pray you take care of yourself and seek help. If it's a friend you haven't heard from for a while, call them. Let them know you care.

For my Steven and the millions who have died by suicide, I honor your spirits. I have felt your pain and stigma. I will not be silent.

Sobie is a writer, photographer and mental-health advocate who lives in Winston-Salem.


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