Clinical Nutritionist, Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSC Nut Med) talks about her experience with mental illness and questions the way we talk about it and the effect it has on all aspects of our lives…
Late legendary musician John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”, and for most of us, this is true. But for those who have suffered some form of mental illness, life can appear to exist in a vacuum — a limbo of sorts — limited socially by prejudice and perception, and individually by self-criticism and deprecation. With the goal of transparency and reflection, here I’d like to share my experience with mental illness in order to knock down the social and self-made barriers and fight the stigma, forcing us to question the way we talk about mental illness and the effect it has on all aspects of our lives.
For years, my career as a Clinical Nutritionist has combined knowledge gained through university study and gathered from years of clinical practice that specialised in mental health and the brain, with my own personal experience of wading through the depths of my own major depressive disorder. I am innately aware of the rollercoaster of anger and resentment, the numbness of deep despair and the resultant self-loathing that comes from suffering with a mental illness. I am cognizant of the person able to function throughout immense pain and confusion and the stigma surrounding mental illness that touches every facet of their life, from familial relationships to chapters of their career. I am sensitive to societal attitudes and casual language that views mental illness as weakness and lack of strength, and I applaud anyone who steps forward to share their own journey with the goal of increasing awareness in the pursuit of acceptance and understanding. Most importantly, I stand with everyone touched by mental illness to beg for a change in our collective approach to mental health that is so desperately needed.
Whilst we have made gains in our understanding of mental illness over the past few decades and huge strides in treatment of mental illness with therapy, medication, nutrition and supplemental medicine, some people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses still encounter public stigma that robs them of opportunities to define a quality life. In fact, 75% of people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma — not surprising when you consider the results of a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour that interviewed 250 members of the public and their opinions concerning people suffering from mental illness: 56% of people interviewed for the study did not want to spend an evening socialising with someone with a mental illness, while 58% of people did not want to work with someone with mental illness. These statistics are particularly shocking when you consider that one in seven Australians will experience depression, one in four will experience an anxiety condition and almost half of all Australians (45%) will experience some form of mental illness during their lifetime.
I know from the response I’ve received from public admissions of my illness that there needs to be a counter-image to what most people think of when they think of mental illness (and in my case, major depressive disorder): the image of the “crazy” person who cannot control their emotions, are constantly negative and “woe is me” and cannot function in daily life. People need to understand that people with mental illness can thrive and achieve, create and succeed. We are not mentally weak, we are survivors; capable of having a “bad day” without falling off the proverbial cliff, and that our symptoms can be managed perfectly like the symptoms of many other chronic illnesses. We have close families, we have incredible careers, we have passion for our hobbies, and we live full and enthusiastic lives that we love (all of which appear to compete with the common stereotypes and stigmas of mental illness).
The word “stigma” originated in Ancient Greece and is derived from a word meaning “to mark someone”. Erving Goffman, in his seminal 1960s work In Stigma: Notes of the Management of Spoiled identity, describes the damaging effects of stigma, which reduces the bearer from a whole person to a shallow part — the part that is instantly defined. Stigma is not simply the use of negative labels or a poor choice of words; it encourages fear, mistrust and/or aggression towards people with mental illness. And most troubling, these negative opinions stay long after the symptoms of the illness have disappeared. As I know too well, the impact of stigma is twofold: public stigma is the reaction that the general population show to mental illness, and self-stigma is the loathing in which people with mental illness turn against themselves.
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