A few months ago, my cousin came to our house to review and discuss the family history my husband had been writing. After reviewing the material, he made one request – leave out the part about his father’s bipolar disorder. In fact he didn’t want to see any discussion of any of the mental illness that permeates my side of our family.

That was proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists.

Although my husband did not mention our family’s mental illness in the history, I openly discussed my grandmother’s, uncle’s, and mother’s mental illness in my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, and that I believe that their genes passed on bipolar disorder to my son.

Genetics is one of the biological causes of mental illness; others could be brain defects or prenatal damage. There are also psychological and environmental causes that can trigger this illness if a person is susceptible. The more we know about the causes of mental illness and the more we are attuned to the fact that the unusual behaviors of mentally ill people are symptoms and not causes, the easier it will be to erase the stigma associated with it.

Stigma can exhibited in several ways: bullying, negative remarks, calling a mentally ill person crazy, portraying a mentally ill person as a sociopath or violent in films and television, or characterizing a mentally ill person as weak and stupid.

As Glenn Close, who has a sister with bipolar disorder and a nephew with schizoaffective disorder, says, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect not only individuals, but their families as well.” To that end she created the bringchange2mind organization https://bringchange2mind.org/. Its mission is:

1) Provide people who have misconceptions about mental illness quick and easy access to information that combats stigma
2) Provide people who have mental illness, and those who know them quick and easy access to information and support.

A recent Mayo Clinic article stated that progress has been made in removing the stigma of mental illness and mental health disorders, but agrees that it is still a real problem for people who have mental illness. I know what a problem it was for my son. He worked for almost two years for a internet provider, and when they heard of the reason for his death, his co-workers were shocked to know he had any illness whatsoever.

He was a master at hiding his bipolar symptoms. He didn’t want to take his meds, he didn’t accept needed hospitalizations, he just tired to act as “normal” as he could. And that is probably what killed him. If he had taken the Mayo Clinic’s advice geared to erasing stigma – admit something is wrong, don’t feel ashamed, seek and follow treatment and support, accept help from family and friends – he might still be alive today.

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Madeline Sharples

Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. In the meantime, she worked most of her professional life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer, and proposal manager. She sold real estate for ten years while her boys were growing up, and instead of creative writing, she took creative detours into drawing and painting, sewing, quilting, and needlepoint. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in hardback in 2011. Dream of Things publishers has recently released paperback and eBook editions. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences. She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines. Madeline’s articles appear regularly in the Huffington Post, Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, and Aging Bodies. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and at Red Room. She is currently writing an historical fiction book, but her main mission is raising awareness, educating, and erasing the stigma of mental illness and suicide, through her writing and volunteer work, in the hopes of saving lives.

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