At a time when your family member, you and your family are challenged by the difficulties of mental illness, you will likely experience stigma. It may be in the form of insensitive remarks, imposing questions or social shunning. Stigma can be crippling. It is at these times when you should know you and your family are not alone.

“In the end, just to sum up, the tragedy does not lie with the disability; that is not the tragedy. The tragedy is in the way society treats the child and the family that is dealing with the disability.” – Donna Huffman from Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Addictions Services in Canada, The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, 2006.

The typical reaction experienced by someone living with mental illness is fear and rejection. It isn’t only the person living with mental illness who suffers though, it is also their family. Everyone has the right to fully participate in their community; however, people living with mental illness and their families often find themselves facing a constant series of rejections and exclusions. People living with mental illness and their families may experience increased isolation and loneliness following a diagnosis of mental illness. Sometimes their friends, coworkers and other social supports are not as open and welcoming. This often relates to misunderstanding and lack of knowledge.

One of the things we can all do is find opportunities to pass on facts and positive attitudes about people living with mental illness. Take the time to correct someone you know if their assumptions or beliefs are incorrect. Challenge the myths and stereotypes presented by the media; write a letter to the editor or contact the editor by phone. Let them know how negative words and incorrect descriptions affect people living with mental illness and their families.

Resources to help:

“I was a counsellor, I was a substitute teacher, I was a daycare worker, I worked in a women’s shelter, but once they labelled me “mentally ill” I lost all credibility.” – Ruth Johnson from Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Addictions Services in Canada, The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, 2006.

What do you say?

Keeping the secret of mental illness is a burden in itself. This is especially true when you may need to reach out to support your family member. Talking about your family member’s illness may not be easy. It may help you to give your comments and possible answers to questions some thought in advance so that you are not caught off guard. It’s worth noting too that you will want to say more to some people than to others.

Just as with any illness, there are some things to think about before talking about your family member’s illness:

“At first we didn’t tell anyone anything. We just didn’t know what to say or how it would be perceived. I now wish that I could have been more comfortable in just saying ‘she’s suffering from depression.’ I think that would have helped both of us get support.” – Guy from All Together Now: How families are affected by depression and manic depression, Health Canada, 1999.

“When people ask me what my adult children ‘do,’ I describe them in terms of their gifts and talents. One loves to sing and drive, is very funny and has the sweetest baby. Two are very creative and involved in the arts. They all love to travel and enjoy food from around the world. When I do talk about illness, I use words like ‘challenges,’ ‘recovery’ and ‘proud’ a lot.” – Sheila Morrison

Resources to help:

One in five people in Canada will experience mental illness. Canada has a population of about 33 million people. Considering that, one in five equals about seven million people who will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. You are not alone. You have your family member, your family, your friends and the many other families who are supporting their family member living with mental illness.