This week, singing star Mariah Carey made an announcement that was a long time in the making: back in 2001, she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. She has recently made the decision to treat it and to share her story. Carey is not the first celebrity to acknowledge a struggle with mental illness, but she is one of the most high-profile people to do so. And she has struck a major blow in the fight against the crippling stigma that keeps so many people trapped behind fences of shame, fear, and isolating silence.
Carey rose to stardom as a teenager, and I’m going to go ahead and date myself by telling you I was a teenager back then too. In fact, her music was part of the Top 40 radio soundtrack playing during my high school years, when my family was first coming to terms with the chronic and cyclical nature of my mom’s schizophrenia, which was diagnosed around that time. I have firsthand knowledge of the kind of shame and stigma Carey has fought her way through for the last 17 years. Many of you do too.
In the United States, fewer than half (about 41 percent) of people who need mental health care, and about half of people with severe mental illness, receive that care. Multiple reasons are behind these abysmal statistics, but perhaps the most devastating is stigma. Millions of people won’t seek treatment, or won’t stick with it, specifically because they are afraid of what they will lose if they acknowledge their mental health challenge.
In Carey’s case, stigma and fear kept her not only from publicly acknowledging her health problem, but also from properly treating it. Her explanation echoes so many others I’ve heard: “I didn’t want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career.” People at all levels of society and economy feel exactly as she did: “I was so terrified of losing everything.”
I assume stigma lied to Carey, as it has lied to so many of us. It claims we are alone when we are not. It claims no one will understand when we are surrounded by people who can relate to our stories. It tells us we will not be loved if we tell the truth. And it can be very convincing in its assertion that acknowledging and treating mental illness will mean losing too much. It never mentions the prospect that treating illness could actually make life better, richer, fuller, healthier, happier.
If you find yourself in this same place, afraid to admit to a brain-based disorder or an ongoing emotional struggle, I encourage you to consider a new perspective on what’s at stake. You may be focused on what you might lose; have you thought about what you might gain? Have you considered what you’re missing out on now? Have you faced the possibility that treatment might mean the beginning of a new and more hopeful life for you and everyone who loves you? Have you wondered how your brave admission might inspire someone else who needs you to go first?
“I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone,” Mariah Carey said. “It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.” I’m with her. And the beautiful irony here is that Carey has won a major battle in this war by sharing her own diagnosis. She has not only lifted her own isolation, but granted permission to others to follow her lead. I would be willing to bet she will not lose a thing that really matters. And let’s face it, most of us have far less to lose.
If you have your own story to share, a story that would grant hope to someone else, I encourage you to share it. This is the best and most effective way to fight stigma.
If you live with mental illness that is untreated or inadequately treated, your life can be better. You can have a new beginning. Mental illness may not be curable, but it is treatable. We’ve never had better prospects and outcomes available through mental health care. So grab hold of hope and hang on. Let it lead you to a place where you can hand it off to someone else.
© 2018 Amy Simpson.