Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Understanding people who don't understand

I was just puttering - looking through some old articles I wrote - and came upon this one. I don't think I've ever posted it here.

As a person living with bipolar disorder, I used to feel frustrated that so many people do not understand mental illness. I was angry that, because of the stigma that surrounds these diseases, people didn’t even try to empathize. But through my writing and educating others, I’ve learned that the problem does not lie only with healthy people who do not understand. It lies as well with those of us who live with mental illness. We share the onus of making the world a friendlier place for people like ourselves. This piece is for us.

I try hard to understand the people who do not yet understand. This helps me educate others on mental health issues, whether through my writing, speaking, or meeting with others.

We who live with mental illness need to go beyond thinking that others should understand us. We need to understand them as well. Understanding is a two-way street. All of us should understand each other. Those of us with mental illness should empathize with healthy people who need to be encouraged to learn what mental illness is and is not. We need the patience to educate them gradually. With help, they will learn, step-by-step, to cut through the stigma that so heavily surrounds mental illness.

We would like to see healthy people put themselves in our place, with empathy. But we with mental illness must also put ourselves in their place, to understand why they have so much trouble empathizing. We need to learn how to build empathy where it doesn’t exist. And we need patience with those who can’t identify with us—not anger or frustration, but love, showing them love in the same way we want to be loved. In this way, we will gradually remove the stigma.

If we believe in ourselves, without shame or guilt, others will not be able to hurt us as much with their unsympathetic attitudes. We will learn to ignore snubs and not return them. We will reach out to others who have trouble reaching out to us. We will learn not to internalize the stigma. We will not accept the stigma, but will live instead as though it doesn’t exist.

I’m fortunate to have a husband who has always supported me. I didn’t have to worry about keeping my disorder secret from unsympathetic employers. I had the freedom, ten years ago, to start educating the public by writing about my illness, trying to build empathy and compassion. My church friends gradually learned from me what it means to live with bipolar disorder. Today I enjoy a church environment in which mental health issues are an acceptable topic of conversation. The faith-based mood disorders support group, Living Room, that I started has become a much-loved ministry for my church.

Most people want to feel compassion for others. All they need is to understand our illnesses better. For that to happen, the stigma that causes fear and prevents people from learning must be reduced. And the only way to reduce stigma is to talk openly about these issues. When we talk naturally about mental illness, it’s amazing how many people with these problems come out of hiding. Others become more supportive, and suddenly sick people no longer need to suffer alone and in silence.

Though I’m still angry at the stigma, I no longer feel as angry about the misunderstanding. Today I try instead to understand people who don’t understand, knowing they need time to learn. If we educate with patience, one person at a time—loving them as we want to be loved—the world will become a better place.

As the Bible says, “…live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” (1 Peter 3:8)

And that goes for all of us.


Paula Joy said...

So simple but so true! Being understood is a basic human need - I never thought of trying to understand those who don't understand!!

Good article, Marja!

marja said...

Glad you like it. Glad you understand, Paula.

airdrie said...

You are very inspiring. I think sometimes it's the people with the greatest challenges in life who actually take the time to figure out how to cope with life the best. What a great blog. Keep writing.

marja said...

Welcome to my blog, Airdrie. And thank you for your encouragement.

'Tart said...

This is a wonderful article, Marja! It makes perfect sense to encourage us to love ourselves and also to love those that don't understand us. It's like 'honey' or kindness attracts better the anger that often follows being hurt. Thank you for this wonderful point and reminder.

marja said...

I'm glad you like this, Tart. This point of view is something I had to learn. It's much better to fight stigma when you're able to see the other's viewpoint. Love can conquer all.