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Mental Illness Stigma Is No Joke

isolated teen hurt by mental illness stigma


Mental Illness Stigma Is No Joke

Isolated teen, Adobe

Mental Illness Stigma Is No Joke

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Mental Illness Stigma means people feel free to joke about it. Even though we work hard to educate and speak out, people continue to use mental illness as the punchline for jokes. A few years ago I was at a church service where the minister repeated an inappropriate joke.  Her remark seemed funny and innocent, but it really had a shaming message. The minister quoted an author who said, “If I wasn’t making a living as a writer, I may have been busy doing yard work for a woman with multiple personalities.”

Mental Illness Stigma Is Cruel Joke

She wanted to be funny; and a few in the congregation laughed. Many did not. I was appalled.  A few days later, I confronted her on this. When she apologized to me, I had an opportunity to explain and advocate. Her comment wasn't about my hurt feelings. Her comment actually shamed people with mental illnesses. I asked her to apologize to the congregation. Maybe she wasn't aware, but I knew of at least three people in the church who were diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now Dissociative Identity Disorder).

Would she have used the quote in her sermon if the author said, “If I wasn’t making a living writing, I would probably be doing laundry for a Jewish American Princess.” Or, “I may have been busy doing yard for a black woman with terminal cancer.”

How many people at church would have found these comments funny? Interestingly enough, in the weeks following her sermon, two comics in the local newspaper also made fun of mental illness.

Joking About Mental Illness

This comment was a slap in the face to those who suffer from multiple personality disorder. It was also a shaming comment to all persons and/or loved ones who have a mental illness. And it made me realize that the minister was unwilling to recognize how awful of a quote this was. She said it didn’t matter. It wasn’t her quote.  To which I pointed out that she seemed to have chosen it as she thought it was funny. Needless to say, I haven’t returned to her services.

Making Mistakes Means Apologizing

Of course, we all make faux pas. Sometimes we recognize them; sometimes we don’t. When I was working as a therapist on an inpatient psychiatric unit, one of my patients told me about renovations to the old State Psychiatric Hospital. I said it had a fascinating history, and my patient replied, “Not if you ever lived there.” I quickly apologized as it was a totally inappropriate comment. What can be an innocent comment for one can be deeply hurtful to another. We all make mistakes, but we can also all make amends.

Compassion For Mental Illness Not Mocking Or Jokes

What has to happen is for people to find the compassion within themselves and others. Of course, those of us with mental illnesses can use the humor of our conditions to survive in a world that struggles with acceptance and compassion. But we don't have to be anyone's joke. To be made fun of for having a major health condition, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, adds stigma to a world that denigrates those who are different. Instead, lets celebrate and embrace all our differences and our similarities.



Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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