By Ken Braiterman, Wellness Wordworks Board Chair
I came out to my family and trusted friends right away, when I was diagnosed in 1977, not with people who only knew me a short time, or at work. I didn’t want them to think about my mental health history if I got angry, tired, or frustrated like everybody else.
What I told myself determined what I told other people. That evolved in stages.
I thought in 1977 that I had a chemical imbalance in the brain, a no-fault disease controllable with medication. That was a new idea then. If enough people knew it was treatable and chemical, not our fault or our family’s, there would be no stigma. NAMI still believes that, even though it has not eliminated stigma in 40-plus years.
In 1985, on the verge of achieving a job at a daily newspaper — my life’s goal — the managing editor said everybody there liked me, and a former employer he talked to said I was “brilliant and creative.”
“But have you ever had a problem with depression?” I figure somebody must have said something, or he figured it out from the gaps in my resume.
“A long time ago,” I said, “but since then, I got stable on medication, earned my Master’s degree, wrote features, and was news editor at a weekly. Some diabetics are sicker than I am.”
He agreed that it seemed my problems were behind me, and accepted my reason for not telling people at work. He asked me for a doctor’s letter, and I got it for him. I found out later he asked a diabetic for the same thing.
I was happy there for 11 years, and grateful to them for giving me a chance. As a writer, I could change lives, and occasionally did.
Later, I learned from Mary Ellen Copeland that recovery meant more than being symptom-free and stable on medication. I still teach that to psych hospital inpatients. Her thinking,and mine, have evolved as new data about the dangers of psych meds has emerged.
Three Phases of Thinking about Stigma Reduction Messaging
Since 1985, I’ve gone through all three of Wordworks’ founder Corinna West’s phases of stigma reduction messaging.
1. The illness is biological and nobody’s fault, so accept that and all will be well. I accepted my diagnosis and loved my meds, which were allowing me to do my dream job.
‘2. I started a local version of NAMI”s consumer speaker’s bureau of people doing well in recovery. “In Our Own Voice” speakers’ message was, “I recovered; so can you and your loved ones.” Evaluations showed 85 percent of local and national audience members came away with a better attitude about people with mental illness. It was NAMI’s most effective stigma reduction program, NAMI concluded. My speakers said lifestyle changes, not just medication, were essential to recovery.
3. Now, I ask, “Recovered from what?” Emotional distress is not an illness. It’s a normal reaction to abnormal events that can happen to anyone. Just talk to someone who’s been there before, and find what gives you personal power. I react badly and impulsively to certain things that trigger previous traumas. I’ve gotten much better at controlling those reactions, and I’m still improving. They are a normal reaction to abnormal people and events that really happened in the past, not a disease.
4. In 2002, I wrote that PTSD is not a disease, but a normal human reaction to abnormal people and events.
5. In 2008, I met Corinna West, who broadened my vision: Emotional distress is not a disease.
Wellness Wordworks changes lives each time it convinces someone he is not sick, but experiencing temporary, possibly transformative, difficulty. So the question is not whether to go public about your mental illness. What ARE you going public about?
Saying you’re overcoming emotional distress is true. It does not create fear or stigma because everybody has it.
Even better is the phrase overcoming adversity, that we use in Poetry for Personal Power. We’ve found that phrase brings people together who usually do not interact. Adversity can be anything that pushes you down, from emotional distress to poverty to racial prejudice.
Now, I’m, not sick, I’m having a hard time.