Jen Pape’s Story
Imagine finding out you have a chronic, debilitating illness which has to actively be maintained for you to be able to function at even part of the capacity that you know you are actually capable of. Now imagine on top of having to cope with the stress of your illness and its treatment, you also have to face social rejection and stigmatization because of your illness. People treat you differently, the media pokes fun at people with diseases like your own, society distrusts consumers like yourself, others do not understand why you cannot merely shake it off or get over it, and you feel all the more isolated and handicapped as a result. It seems as if you have suffered enough and yet your struggle is still not over.
All too often this is the reality that we mental health consumers must face. In a 2009 study by Lundberg and colleagues, 45 percent of subjects, all mental health consumers, said that they had chosen to avoid people because they might look down on them; 37 percent had been advised to lower their expectations in life because they were consumers; and 29 percent had had “the fact that they were in a mental hospital [specifically used] to hurt their feelings.” 1 Can you imagine having to deal with that while simultaneously trying to invest in your illness’s treatment and your overall well-being?
I myself was diagnosed in high school with major depressive disorder. This disease has provided serious challenges for me to overcome throughout my life, and still does. While I always had an easy time beating myself up and feeling immense amounts of shame and isolation for my disorder, I never realized until recently how much my community, family, and friends have also played a role in my disorder, greatly helping me to overcome its challenges.
Over the years as I completed my bachelor of science in psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison as well as had the brief opportunity to serve as support staff for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Resource Center to Promote Acceptance, Dignity and Social Inclusion Associated with Mental Health, I came to realize how vital a role other people played in my recovery and continued mental health. Recovery for me, as well as my continued mental health, are, without a doubt, in large part thanks to the constant support I have received from my family, friends, and the communities that I have disclosed my mental illness to over the years.
I am extremely fortunate for my parents’ support alone. Throughout the years they have supported me in so many ways from finding a therapist who was right for me, and continually encouraging me, while holding me to high standards even when I myself have my doubts or cannot seem to see that light at the end of the tunnel. Really I cannot ever thank them enough for their endless amount of love and support for me even as my depression brought stress and conflict to our family. They never gave up on me, and as a result I never gave up on myself.
My friends, several of whom are consumers themselves, serve as my safety net. They provide a secure place for me to express myself, catching me when I’m falling and helping to make sure I stay on my feet, while also giving me a sense of connection to others who depend on me for support themselves. One such safety net has been a group of girlfriends I have, several of whom suffer mood disorders like I do. Our friendship gives us the opportunity to check in with each other not only about our well-being, but also to talk about and offer support for each other in our treatment, discussing doctors, medications, insurance, and really just whatever someone in our group needs to get off her chest. The recent death of one of our best friends proved the value of our bond, as each of us came to each other’s side and truly tapped into each others' needs, providing buffers of support for each other as we cope with an event that could easily trigger any one of us to shut down completely.
Academic, professional, and mental health consumer communities to which I have disclosed my mental illness have provided me with a different sense of connection and network of support with others who empathize or sympathize with my struggles, and recognize that despite them I can still be a contributing member of society and still achieve whatever dreams I set out for. One such professor reached out to me when I was experiencing a depressive episode and had been withdrawing in class. He was concerned because I had missed a few classes and had gotten a lower grade on my exam than he expected given the quality of my contributions to class discussion. It seemed to me to be just the little shake, the slight extended hand that I really needed at that time, because it gave me the motivation I needed to get myself back on my feet and reinvest myself into my classes. I should caution that this isn't to say that his reaching out to me made me snap out of that episode—indeed it is a process and one should not give up if efforts to help do not always seem instantly fruitful—but his reaching out to me seemed to be one of those buffers I needed to help keep myself in check, to get myself out of bed, no matter what seemed to be trying to weigh me down that day.
Mental illnesses can affect anyone and they take a serious toll on individuals, their loved ones, and our communities and society. While I have had the blessing of family, friends, and communities that support me in my recovery, not all who face such challenges have or will receive the same degree of support and acceptance that I have. This is a mindset that needs to change, a responsibility not only of individuals with mental illnesses, but also of their families, their mental health care providers, their friends, their employers and teachers, and most importantly our communities and society at large.
Each and every person deserves the opportunity and the freedom to live a happy and mentally healthy life. So with that, I encourage us all to please be aware of ourselves and of others, lend an open ear, and have an open mind. Together we can create a community of positive mental health, progress, and involvement. Together we can overcome our illnesses and life’s challenges. So together, let’s promote mental health, acceptance, dignity, and social inclusion for all.