The Burden of Stigma and the Reward of Authenticity, By Christina Carney
Our topic this month for Community Connections was conflict resolution. It’s also Mental Health Awareness month, so part of our conversation was to explore how being open about mental health struggles, past and present, can complicate this. Like with many conversations we have, much of it comes back to perception and stigma.
Although millions of people struggle with their mental health, Peer Specialists have the unique opportunity to live openly and share these experiences with others in a professional capacity. It also means that we are constantly bumping up against people’s fears and beliefs around mental health, both in our personal and professional lives. Where this really can become challenging is when ordinary human feelings, expression, and communication are viewed through a lens of illness. It can become invasive, and there is an alarmist quality to it. Co-workers wanting to know if you’ve taken your meds, or worried you might have a breakdown all because you’re expressing dissatisfaction, or maybe just having a bad day.
This can result in Peer Specialists feeling like they have to be extraordinarily careful about how they communicate: what they express and how they express it. And of course, not just Peer Specialists, but anyone who openly acknowledges a mental health struggle. Family members, or partners minimizing your feelings because you’re “mental.” Or walking on eggshells because they’re worried about how you’ll react to conflict.
The burden rests on the shoulders of those who are honest about their mental health. That burden can be doubled if you are a person of color, or a woman. Conflict and any possible resolution is then seen through the prism of multiple stereotypes and stigmas. While conflict resolution skills are helpful, the real work is addressing the stigma around mental health and normalizing the full range of human emotion.
But whatever burdens we may carry around stigma, there is also a significant reward for living authentically. It’s exhausting to pretend you’re something you’re not, to hide and keep secrets. And, it’s lonely. There is liberation in being honest about our struggles, and deep connection and community when we find others who share our experiences. And to come full circle, we can only find each other when we have the courage to live authentically.
Live authentically. Live your truth. And if you love me for anything, love me because I live mine.
– Neale Donald Walsch