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StigmaOne of the cardinal steps in most 12-step anonymous programs is admitting addiction and embracing it as a lifelong struggle. I’ve also adopted that manifesto with mental illness. I am now and will forever be a recovering Agoraphobic. I am always one step away from a relapse, one trigger away from an Agoraphobic episode. It’s a troubling realization I’ve battled with since conquering my last incident at 17.

Agoraphobia strikes without warning. It is not an inherent condition and has no genetic origins. The illness tackled me when I was 12. I was kicked out of a recreation center for running. The suspension was supposed to last one afternoon. I didn’t return for four months. I recall an overwhelming sense of panic overtaking me as I stepped out of my mother’s car and my closest friends coaxed me to walk into the rec center. It was the first in a long line of similar episodes.

Sometimes I was triggered by too much homework. Others time it was the sun setting before 5 p.m. But no matter the reason, isolation ensued for days, weeks and sometimes months. Agoraphobia permeated every aspect of my life. The illness was the puppeteer and I was the pawn. Agoraphobia determined when I left the house, how and when I communicated and whether or not life seemed worth living at that moment.

When I finally emerged from hiding and began socializing again, I scurried to hide the tracks of my mental illness. I weaved lies, thinking I was also hiding the pain etched in my face as I remembered the nights I cried until my pillow was soaked in tears. I lied through college. I lied through New York Fashion Week. I lied through my college valedictory speech. I hid Agoraphobia behind chic pumps, accolades, degrees and a smile.

I lied because I was ashamed. There was a stigma attached to mental illness and I wanted as much distance from it as possible. Many women of color are also lying and hiding their challenges with mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness released several alarming statistics about mental illness in the African-American community including:

  • Mental illness is so frequently stigmatized and misunderstood in the African-American community that we’re less likely to seek help from trained psychologists.
  • We trust churches and other cultural institutions more than physicians and those in positions to assist us.
  • Many of us don’t share our struggles until we’re suicidal and in need of emergency care.

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, other connotations are being attached to mental illness. Anxiety Panic Health found modern stigmas include the belief that the mentally ill are violent and a threat to society and that the mentally ill are weak, moral failures. Neither of these assumptions are based in reality, but both lead victims of mental illness to hide their conditions until it consumes them.

This has to stop. Though the National Alliance of Mental Illness recommends improving cultural awareness in health care and providing diversity training to physicians, it has to begin on a micro level. It begins with us. Healthful conversations about mental illness have to be facilitated in our homes, churches and beauty salons without using the word “crazy.” We can’t dismiss the sadness of our children. We can’t invoke stereotypical images of mental illness when confronting it in our families and sister circles. Here are five simple steps for addressing mental illness, courtesy of Anxiety Panic Health:

  • Join an advocacy group. You can be an ally to someone with a mental illness by learning the tools of support from a local group.
  • Be an active listener and defer judgment. “It is important that you not abandon your friend or family member in their hour of greatest need due to your own emotions or the stigma of mental illness. It is all too common for people, in their confusion about what to do, to do nothing to help or support them.” A simple phone call can work wonders.
  • Develop a positive attitude. “It will help you to provide better support for a friend or family member with a mental illness, and will help you through your own difficult emotions.”
  • Motivate. “Encourage your friend or family member to learn about what treatments and services will promote recovery. Help them follow through with medication and the instructions their therapist will give.”
  • Actively combat stigma and scapegoating. “You may only be comfortable pushing for more awareness within a close circle of family and friends by gently reminding them about the harm in jokes and stereotypes. Or if you’re more comfortable tackling bigger challenges and facing bigger risks, you may decide you can make your cause more public.” In other words, stop the beautician before she calls some “schizo.” Watch your language as well.

It’s time to push back against stigma and push onward in mental health awareness.

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