The Stigma of Mental Illness - Part 3 of 3

I did not attempt suicide because I was depressed. I tried to end my life because of unbearable shame.

To paraphrase Thomas Joiner, a person’s risk of suicide increases with a corresponding increase in the belief that they are a burden to others and a decrease in perceived belongingness. If a person gains confidence in their ability to self-harm, then the risk of suicide becomes even greater.

You’ll notice that “being sad” is not a variable in his equation for suicide risk. That is because it IS NOT about being sad. We all get sad. We get the blues. We feel down.

Then our friends take us out, or our mother calls and we feel a little better.

Imagine how awful you would feel if you were grieving the loss of someone close to you, and you had no one to talk with. Even worse, you feel compelled to keep your feelings a secret because you do not want to burden other people with your problems.

When someone dies, every culture on Earth has their own process for grieving as an individual and as a community.

When someone gets physically sick, they are cared for by friends, family, and professionals if needed.

When someone is mentally ill, they are ostracized. They are whispered about. They are taken out of public view.

We are social creatures. Our roots are our family, our friends, branches, and our work and interests are the leaves.

Imagine, feeling no pleasure in your work or your favorite hobby… the leaves wither and fall.

Imagine, being compelled by distorted thinking that you cannot tell your friends… the branches become brittle.

Imagine, lying to your closest family members because you cannot bear causing them pain… the roots shrivel.


Eventually, you become a shell of your former self. Standing tall for the world to see, but your supporting structures are gone, and one more storm might take you down for good.


We see this most harshly in our primate relatives because of psychologist Harry Harlow. His experiments are explored in-depth in the book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. His most famous experiment was with infant rhesus monkeys confined to a cage with two fake mothers. One mother was made of wire mesh and had a bottle of milk. The other mother had no milk, but was covered in soft fur.

The prevailing idea of the time was that children only needed physical sustenance from their parents to develop into healthy adults. Harlow’s experiments destroyed that idea because the young monkeys spent nearly all their time cuddling the soft mother with no milk, and briefly leaving the comforting mommy to climb on the wire mother to drink.

The visual equivalent of the effect of mental illness stigma.

The visual equivalent of the effect of mental illness stigma.

A lesser known experiment by Harlow was known, by him, as The Pit of Despair. This is a truly horrific experiment.

He would take an infant from its mother at birth, and put it in an inverted triangular enclosure. The walls were sloped at an extreme angle so the monkey could never climb out. It grew up in an environment with no parenting or socialization; only food and the slow, cold realization that it could never change it’s circumstances.

This is a striking example of how a primate with no one to talk to, and no way to talk, cowers away from everything.

This is a striking example of how a primate with no one to talk to, and no way to talk, cowers away from everything.

After a time, the monkey would be placed in an enclosure with many monkeys. They huddled in the corner, cried, and shook themselves.

Forced isolation created an animal that lived entirely in fear. Even worse, the socialized “normal” monkeys picked on the fearful monkey; increasing it’s terror and further decreasing any likelihood that it could ever socialize normally.

This is a compelling example of how badly social primates can be hurt by the inability to talk. I share these pictures because they are revolting. As the viewer, we feel such an outpouring of concern for such a sad and fearful creature.

We can feel this for a rhesus monkey in a cage, but not a human being in the cage of an ill mind. Stigma prevents us, and it prevents those suffering from seeking treatment. Lest they become a burden to those they care about.

So the young boy closes his closest door and loops a belt around his neck.

The father drives to a bridge and jumps.

The teenage girl draws a bath and slits her wrists.

All because they did not believe they could talk to anyone.

The Stigma of Mental Illness - Part 2

What is it that makes us fearful of the unknown? The strange? The other?

It makes sense that most of us are frightened of large predators, poisonous animals, deep bodies of water, and exceptional heights. All of those things could cause us significant bodily harm, or even death.

But why be afraid of another human? We share 99.9% of our DNA with one another! The answer lies in our evolutionary past.

We are naturally fearful of what we cannot see. We descended from hunter-gatherers who assumed that every rustling sound in the bushes indicated the presence of a bigger, badder animal. We did not descend from those that thought, “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Because those humans were eaten.

“Did anyone else hear that?”

“Did anyone else hear that?”

Today, most of humanity can reasonably assume that they are not at risk to being lunch for a saber-tooth tiger. The fear of the unseen did not go extinct; it developed into the fear of the unseen in others.

We humans are equally adept at crafting stories and placing blame. As a result we found differences and exploited them to feel safe:

“Dear me… that one thinks he’s Napoleon!”

“Dear me… that one thinks he’s Napoleon!”

There is a deep-seated, human reason for calling “other” people names. It allows us to immediately declare that WE are not THEM. As a result, we feel safe, superior, and entitled to take liberties.

When I go off the rails
I hurt my self not you
I curl up in my bed
A snail within the shell
When I am depressed
I don’t rise up off my sofa
Let alone become a danger
Manned with an axe
To chop up you
When my brain is racing
From one thing to the next
I haven’t the space or time
To bother anyone other
So relax
When I’m up
I am creative
Making, painting a must
I become one possessed
But not with you
Stigma wielding man
My juices too precious to waste
On hydrating your prejudice

I have an illness
It is not contagious
And not the all of me
So if you cannot accept
Or treat me with a little respect
Then at the very least
Zip your mouth
Don’t tell me what’s best
Or simply to pull my self together
I am not curtains
And I do not care to be patronised
By your ignorance
Yes I’m talking to you
The uninformed jury
Assuming fear as fact
Remember one day it may
Be your reality too.
- Rachel Blake

Germans became “Krauts”, Japanese became “Japs”, Russians became “Reds”.

Mentally ill becomes “crazy”.

Schizophrenic becomes “dangerous”.

Depression becomes “lazy”.

Anxiety becomes “weak”.

We are wired to be afraid of that which we believe is different. Stigmatizing something or someone is a natural, human activity.

That said, we should feel comfortable relegating that urge to the dust bin of history. We are growing out of our childish understanding of the world. If a child in middle school can comprehend the basics of atomic structure; surely that child can also be taught that .1% is insignificant when compared to 99.9%.

The real question is, will we grow out of the childhood of our species or will we follow our baser instincts?

The Stigma of Mental Illness - Part 1

The word stigma originates “from the Latin stigmat-, mark, brand,” and “from Greek stizein to tattoo.” This word describes a permanent mark affixed upon the human body, and we humans, traditionally, have a fear what such a mark can portend.


The Mark of Cain, the branding of a slave, a drunk, or a prostitute, the Roman branding of fugitives, the Puritanical Scarlet Letter. We even have a prophecy in the book of Revelation that only those who bare the Mark of the Beast will be permitted to engage in commerce.

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

Revelation 13:16-17 King James Version (KJV)

Announcing that in the end times, the stigma of a brand will turn into a positive for those who on the evil side with the Devil, and not having a brand will mark you on the good side with God. It is impossible to escape the deep-rooted, human belief that a permanent mark indicates someone, or something to stay away from.

Upon hearing the word today, you feel the impulse to rear back and guard yourself; lest you receive a similar brand. This fear is so strong that some people have called me and said, “Thank you for talking about this; it is important that we talk more about it today.”

In the back of my mind, I ask: “What is the ‘it’ they are referring to”?

It is a sign of progress that even though most people still do not feel comfortable saying the words mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and suicide; at least a conversation can happen. Even if the __________________ disorder remains unsaid, that is far better than no one talking about mental illness at all.

This will be a multi-part series where I examine the history of stigma, how mental illness was stigmatized, and ways that you can help excise this blot on human wellness.

For now, I encourage you to donate to the Cure Stigma campaign, run by NAMI at:

The Origin and Meaning of "Suicide"

The word, suicide, is one of the most taboo words in the English language.

It is rarely discussed, and often referred to obliquely: “There was an accident,” or outright denied: “She didn’t jump, she fell.”

Suicide, as a word, feel heavy. Those that have practice lifting it, professionals and anyone with lived experience, are the ones who can most readily talk about suicide.

The actual word is a noun, and is described well in the Online Etymology Dictionary:


Suicide (n.)

"Deliberate killing of oneself," 1650s, from Modern Latin suicidium "suicide," from Latin sui "of oneself" (genitive of se "self"), from PIE *s(u)w-o- "one's own," from root *s(w)e- (see idiom) + -cidium "a killing," from caedere "to slay" (from PIE root *kae-id- "to strike").

The meaning "person who kills himself deliberately" is from 1728. In Anglo-Latin, the term for "one who commits suicide" was felo-de-se, literally "one guilty concerning himself."

Even in 1749, in the full blaze of the philosophic movement, we find a suicide named Portier dragged through the streets of Paris with his face to the ground, hung from a gallows by his feet, and then thrown into the sewers; and the laws were not abrogated till the Revolution, which, having founded so many other forms of freedom, accorded the liberty of death. [W.E.H. Lecky, "History of European Morals," 1869]

In England, suicides were legally criminal if of age and sane, but not if judged to have been mentally deranged. The criminal ones were mutilated by stake and given degrading burial in highways until 1823.

Less than 275 years ago, the body of someone who died by suicide was defiled, mutilated, and discarded. Which is incredible considering the terrific amount of respect we human beings give to our dead. Respect given except when a human being willingly dies by their own hand. I will explore why I think that is in future posts.

It is only until very recently that organizations (both national and grass-roots) have begun celebrating the lives of those that died in the hopes that those struggling with suicidal thoughts don’t feel more isolated than they already feel they are. I’m proud to work with these organizations.