So. Do we think there’s some hierarchy to mental illness?

Sufferers of mental illness find different ways to ease the burden. My preference is to seek out the mutual support found within a group living with similar issues. Many of the battles we fight to survive are fought by the sufferer alone. Any activity which widens that frame is a huge comfort & the thought of being able to offer solidarity to others makes it all the more worthwhile.

Outside of my group meetings I enjoy following online discussions of mental health. Those that focus on the positive and have a sense of humour are especially appealing.

My condition is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) & I’ve been following the uplifting posts of “Positive Action for PTSD” on Facebook & Twitter. A recent post reminded me that “The first to help you up are usually the ones who know what it feels like to fall down.” The following is the latest of their posts to arrive on my time-line. 

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While I can agree with much of the description, I found the start pretty jarring: “PTSD It is not a sickness or disease. We are not crazy or bipolar. We have been through trauma…”. I very much feel a sense of shared experience with sufferers of all types of mental illness & indeed wider disabilities. In my view it’s vital to have groups groups such as Disabled People Against the Cuts who fight for justice and human rights for all disabled people and warmly welcome those of us with less visible conditions. The same goes for the disabled members’ committees I’ve encountered within the Trade Union Movement.

The wording of this post felt to me as though it was placing PTSD on an elevated plane compared with other mental health conditions. When I see “We’re not crazy or bipolar”, I hear ‘we’re not like them’. It seems intended to create a distance rather than provide clarification . It appears to me to imply that there is something superior about having a condition that has a clear external cause: that PTSD is a reaction to something that happened to us, rather than being an intrinsic ‘fault’ within us & that somehow that’s better, more acceptable.

I’m extremely uncomfortable with the idea of separating out different disabilities in a way that pits us against one another. Having thought carefully about my reaction to this post, I think there is more to my discomfort around this idea of a hierarchy of mental illness, or at least different levels of stigma associated with various conditions.

The first time I was hospitalised for my condition, my diagnosis was “Burn Out” rather than PTSD. There are numerous reasons why my symptoms were not initially linked to the trauma I’d experienced. Not least of which was my coping mechanism which was over-activity: keeping continuously and exhaustingly busy from morning to night. Occupying myself without breaks kept me one step ahead of the dangerous feelings and flashbacks more traditionally associated with trauma. So, on arrival in hospital the most obvious feature of my condition was exhaustion.

It was not until more than two years later that I received an official diagnosis of PTSD. So, I began my journey through mental health stigma with an illness that seemed to have no external cause, that felt like something broken within me. I spent two years unable to answer questions (my own & others) as to why I was this way. When I eventually received my PTSD diagnosis, I have to admit I was relieved, because it fit my symptoms & gave me a sense that having the right diagnosis was the beginning of being able to work with the issues I was facing.

However, I also felt the PTSD diagnosis put me in a very different place regarding mental health stigma. This is not something I had admitted, even to myself, until I saw the post from “Positive Action for PTSD”. I don’t like the idea that my fellow sufferers are regarded any differently, that they should bear a greater stigma because they don’t have a ‘why’ - a short, clear way of explaining their condition.

But there is something in a traumatic experience that anyone can look at and make some sense of. There’s some level on which it could happen to anyone, and if it did, they can understand how it might affect them afterwards. This is absolutely not to say PTSD is without its own specific challenges; more of which can be found on this excellent blog by Vantage Point discussing “ticking time bombs” and media coverage of “damaged and potentially unstable Veterans”.

If stigma has its roots in a lack of understanding, is there something about intrinsic mental illness that makes it conceptually more difficult to grasp? What does this mean for those of us campaigning against mental health stigma? Do we need to place more focus on information surrounding mental health conditions that do not stem from trauma? Whatever the answers, I hope we can continue to work positively on these issues together.

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#CivilLiberties, #MentalHealth, #ViolenceagainstWomen