"Not Sick Enough"

Sue Bergeson Health Guide
  • I was recently at a national mental health meeting. The conversation was interesting, the networking helpful. But unfortunately, what I took away from the meeting was an awareness of a problem we have in the mental health consumer community.  

    During the meeting, there was a special “invitation only” meeting for consumers. Several consumers weren’t invited by their peers to this meeting because—somehow—they were seen as “not sick enough.” I’ve been aware of this for years as people disparagingly talk about the “worried well” or somehow believe that those with depression are “not really sick.”  For a while in the consumer community, it was even stated that if you hadn’t been hospitalized, then you were somehow “not authentic.”  You had to have “one night under the roof” (of the state hospital) to be a part of the community.  
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    To make things even worse, at this same meeting, consumers were invited to meet with a high-ranking government official—but only those deemed “sick enough” were told about the meeting. Those that found out about the meeting and attended anyway were prevented from speaking by the person acting as the meeting’s gatekeeper.

    Obviously, I talked pointedly and specifically to the consumer leaders in charge of this meeting about their stigmatizing behavior. They were apologetic and promised to adjust their practice. We shall see if they do. I’m somewhat skeptical about whether this will actually occur.

    I was reflecting on these actions with another mental health leader (a non-consumer). He shook his head and commented that every “oppressed class” seems to take on the very characteristics that they complain about in those who oppress them. So, if mental health consumers feel judged and stigmatized, it follows that we immediately act in judgmental and stigmatizing ways to each other.

    I find the whole thing sickening. There are over 500,000 suicide attempts every year, most of which are the result of a depressive episode. How dare anyone say that depression is somehow not a serious illness? If someone has been able to skirt hospitalization because of a creative physician or family/work support systems, why does that mean their illness is less severe? And why does it matter anyway? If anything, we should be more kind and open to each other, instead of falling right in line with the practices of those that have hurt us over the years.

    Have any of you experienced this kind of stigmatizing behavior within your own community? If so, how did you cope?
Published On: May 23, 2007