The Stigma Of Mental Illness

Published on on 16th August 2013 | Written by Polly Fielding

About ten years ago I was told I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Although I dislike labels, I hoped that this diagnosis would get me the appropriate help I so desperately needed. A part of me so wanted to stop the suicide attempts which had almost put an end to my life, learn to accept (perhaps even to like) myself and get on better with others. For so long I had been regarded by the medical profession as 'histrionic', 'attention-seeking' or 'difficult to treat'.
The Stigma Of Mental Illness

What I didn't realise was that I would have to fight for several years, despite feeling terribly vulnerable, to get the right treatment. It felt like I had to prove that I deserved help. This was particularly hard since, in common with many others with BPD, I have great difficulty believing that I merit anything positive. I almost gave up hope, nearly gave up on myself; at times, only the encouragement of a caring psychologist kept me going.

And when the extent of my problems became impossible to hide, as I lost my ability to maintain the mask of competence I had worn for much of my adult life, I was faced with the prejudice and stigma of mental illness that surfaced. When I was hospitalised after a complete breakdown and had to give up my teaching career, neither the head nor any of the staff sent a card or even enquired about me. It was as though I had never taught fulltime for the previous eight years in that school. Such is the stigma of mental illness. Fear and ignorance cause people to react in strange ways!

Still worse was the attitude of some members of staff towards me on the acute wards in psychiatric hospitals. In this setting it was not the stigma of mental illness that was at issue but the stigma of diagnosis. When I was shunned, ignored or not given any care plan, I felt that I was merely a nuisance, 'in the way', uncared for. Feeling so helpless and confused triggered anger, resentment and self harm. I was never a danger to others, only to myself.

A few professionals showed me real kindness, like the occupational therapist who introduced me to a range of art materials and encouraged me to explore their use. It was then that I discovered a passion for soft pastels and ploughed my energy into producing poppy fields, sunsets and scenes of Venice in the sunshine.

I found another outlet in writing. I wanted to express my feelings about my relationship with my adoptive and natural mothers and hoped that others would be helped by realising that they were not alone with their abusive pasts. I also felt that I needed to be open (now that I had no job to lose) about my experiences, good, bad and indifferent, as a mental health service user. Despite the stigma of mental illness I was determined to speak out about and get the appropriate treatment for my Borderline Personality Disorder. And then, when I was eventually given access to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy to help me find constructive ways to deal with my powerful negative emotions and destructive impulses, I wanted to let others with BPD know that this and other suitable therapies are out there. I also wanted to prepare them for the fact that, even though they're not soft options, they are worth sticking with.

Sharing experiences with others who have mental health difficulties and have experienced first-hand the stigma of mental illness has helped me feel that I am not alone with my problems. This is a link to a website that you may also find helpful:

I am currently having Schema Therapy which is helping me to look at how I developed my self-punishing beliefs and how my beliefs and reactions affect my relationships. I am hopeful that, in time, I will develop much healthier ways of 'talking' to the hurt, vulnerable child that is still very much a part of me.

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