Enlightening moments dispel mental health stigma | Terry Gupta

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on September 24, 2019 # Health

The day after I killed myself, I cried. I rushed to the morgue and tried talking some sense into that girl, trying to tell her to wake. up. She wouldn’t. The day before I killed myself; I fell in love with life. The minute I killed myself; I couldn’t do it.~ Zoey White

September is Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Awareness Month. It’s also National Suicide Prevention Month. An apt time, perhaps, to consider the role of mental health, and its related stigma, in post-SCI life and living. In this poem, Ms. White writes about those times when overwhelming feelings are on the verge of taking over. Watch, and observe that dark night of the soul anguish lives side-by-side the knowing dawn of hope. Perhaps you’ve had this knowing too?

White’s five powerful lines transcend time, and yet, can be read in moments. Perhaps like the moments, it takes to turn on an incandescent light bulb to find a way through, within that glow.

You could say that the poem reveals the power of “light bulb moments” to shape the turning points in our lives. Inspired moments that help us through the myriad of post-SCI changes, challenges, comparisons, etc. Inspired moments of breakthrough clarity that are perspective shifting and life-changing.

Our mental health changes over time

Various combinations of factors determine our mental health: our biology, aging, stress, chronic health conditions, isolation, substance misuse, trauma and more. This includes, of course, paralysis.

Most commonly, people living with SCI may experience a range of depression and anxiety. These may be new occurrences, or those that escalated after SCI. Living with SCI has the potential to double the risk of mental health concerns and influence physical health.

For a description of symptoms, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.

One in five

Mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the US[1]. One in five adult Americans experience some form of diagnosed mental illness in a given year[2]. One in five. The prevalence is perhaps even higher depending upon definitions and those who remain undiagnosed due to stigma and other reasons. Estimates indicate that more than half of adults with mental health concerns receive no treatment.[3]

Stigma makes recovery more challenging if you let it

NAMI aptly names mental health stigma as a form of discrimination. All of us possess varying degrees of prejudice. When we’re born, we take on generations of other people’s stored impressions. Our impressions are derived from people who raised us and guided us, as well as from the media and virtually every organization we interact with. These impressions are embedded into the fabric of our societal rules and policies. We reinforce and pass them on through our thoughts, words and actions. That is, until we start to consciously examine them.

Social, or public, stigma is directed toward a person with mental health concerns. Self-stigma is when a person with mental health concerns internalizes the stigma. Stigma is filled with the stuff that erodes our confidence while we are not looking.

Stigma influences mental health treatment and recovery. You may carry stigma if you’ve ever:

1. Held/forwarded a false impression or stereotype about mental health issues.

2. Shamed, blamed or judged yourself (or others) for the condition.

3. Assumed you, or the person should be able to “just snap out it”.

4. Felt that mental health issues should not be openly discussed, or are a sign of weakness.

5. Used (or thought!) words that limit, demean or detract from a person experiencing mental health concerns.

6. Felt limited/excluded, or limited/excluded another person, on the basis of mental health.

7. Avoided treatment, e.g. hidden a mental health concern when you really did not want to, faked being well to avoid attention/scrutiny, or encouraged others to do so. This is a really sensitive area. Social exclusion and discrimination are real. Whether you decide to tell others or not involves careful thought. Either way, treatment can help.

Stigma has some complicated layers. See if you can find Ms. White’s reference to self-stigma in the opening poem. Stigma can be cured, but we have to recognize it.

Education and contact can curb mental health stigma

Education is the light, the freedom and the emanating glow that warms our hearts and opens our minds. We can offer gratitude for the global efforts underway to study stigma. We can also send our appreciation to the many courageous people with mental health concerns who decided that speaking openly was right for them as a way to dispel myths, stereotypes, shame and promote contact. They are using their “celebrity” to say ‘now you know another person who lives with a mental health condition’. It adds up.

Education also includes some self-study. Some questions we can ask ourselves include:

● In what ways do I educate myself, and those in my sphere of influence, about the importance of mental health?

● What did I hear/learn about mental illness while growing up that I might want to replace?

● What stigmas might I be passing on unknowingly through my stories, jokes, family or office norms, movies I recommend, candidates I support, etc.?

If you feel you want to do more, join in the advocacy being done by the Reeve Foundation and other groups. You might initiate efforts to demand that our media more accurately portray people with paralysis and co-occurring mental health conditions, or create parity for mental health insurance coverage, or urge mandated stigma training for health professionals, teachers and community leaders, etc.

Self-acceptance is a key to coping with stigma

Check yourself for signs of low self-esteem, self-stigma, and self-defeating thoughts. These unhappy companions may have been part of our journey before an injury and they certainly move to the forefront after an injury. When was the last time you thought about yourself as a “human being” as opposed to a “human doing”? We are much more than any role we play in life, and certainly, we are not our medical conditions, though this is sometimes how people relate to us. Do you feel a genuine regard for yourself? What are the areas you struggle with?

Healthy lifestyle builds stigma resilience

Eating for health, getting a good sleep and activity (solo, group, in person, online) can benefit our physical and mental health. We know the importance of staged exercise, occupational and physical therapy. We can build our affiliations with friends, groups, causes, etc. We can schedule some time for ourselves to enjoy hobbies or learn new skills. We can find the technology to do these things, or for those entrepreneurially inclined, we can build it.

Support helps slay stigma

Like the lightsaber-wielding Princess Leia role she played so well in Star Wars movies, Carrie Fisher also confronted tremendous “dark side” times in her life. She used the support of a close circle that included Gary, her loyal service animal, as well as medical treatment and medication. She used to think she was (in her own words) a “drug addict”. She later learned that she had bipolar disorder. She especially noted that not knowing what was wrong and initially avoiding treatment was “very painful”. “It's raw”. Her words urge us to “reach out for help when you need it and never, ever, feel embarrassed for it.”

In an emergency, such as suicidal intent, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, call 911, or go to a hospital emergency room. If you go to the ER, try to take an advocate with you. Also, be aware that suicidal ideation and dysphoria may have physiological rather than psychological origins (e.g., adverse reaction to certain medicines) so it’s quite important to talk with your own physician and pharmacist.

Research the appropriate first-line treatment and avoid assuming these are always pharmacological. Support may come from a community mental health center, a private counseling practice, or a variety of evidence-informed integrative therapies such as meditation. Many support groups, in-person and online, can offer a compassionate space. You can participate in Reeve Connect, a secure and private online forum.

You can also think about the support you offer to your own self. “My Younger Self”, a public video campaign to end childhood mental health stigma, asks celebrities to share what they would like to tell their younger self about their struggles.[4] What did boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard tell his ‘younger self’ about his bouts with depression and substance misuse? “It can be helpful to let it out. Vent. Talk to others.” With all the strength and confidence of someone who’s been in tough times in the ring, he tells himself (and us, as the listener) “I’m in your corner”.

Are you the coach in your own corner? What would you say to your ‘younger self’?

Can we use words like stigma ‘cure’ and mental health ‘recovery'

It is said that Christopher Reeve raised the ambition of the SCI research community by using the word ‘cure’ as opposed to ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘restoring some function’. We need that now as it relates to mental health.

We need to shine the spirit of that same light on the many paths to mental health recovery. When we get the support we need, we can recover from some of the most severe mental health conditions. And… when we say stigma is curable, do you believe this is possible? Think about that the next time you need to change a light bulb.

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible” (Christopher Reeve)

In speaking about her anxiety and depression, Lady Gaga says “I really felt like I was dying – my light completely out. I said to myself, whatever is left in there, even just one light molecule, you will find it and make it multiply”. Just like the poem we started with, we may also feel like we (or parts of us) are dying; but life says hope is there.

Keep cultivating self-compassion. Keep understanding our own potential self-stigma. Keep finding that that inner self-regard. More and more. Then, we are less and less apt to be impacted when someone isn’t so supportive, or even nasty, or because a treatment did not work out. We keep trying.

Christopher Reeve’s wisdom reminds us that “we live in a time when impossible and unsolvable are no longer part of the scientific community."

Let’s add up all of our light bulb moments

Thomas Alva Edison, held several patents for the electric light bulb. It’s said that he also experienced mental health concerns. If this is true, he’s surely in good company with so many other scientists (Darwin, Einstein, Newton, etc.) who used their brilliance to transform the way we all live.

We know their light bulb moments. What are some of yours?

Terry Gupta, MSW, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, YACEP, along with and her partner Jay Gupta, RPh, MSc, MTM Specialist, C-IAYT, is co-Founder of www.YogaCaps.org and www.RxRelax.com.


[1] Centers for Disease Control

[2] The National Institute of Health

[3] NAMI, American Journal of Public Health

[4] The Child Mind Institute