Women, Stigma, and Mental Illness

Kitt beneath a fig tree
Kitt fights stigma even as she stands beneath a fig tree in her back yard

Why is it that we as a society seem to accept depression in women more readily than other mental illnesses? We seem to find it acceptable when a woman harms herself, turns her pain, frustration, and anger inward; yet, should she lash out at those making demands of her, such as her children, she is seen as a monster.

Why does it seem more acceptable for a woman to suffer from postpartum depression than postpartum bipolar disorder or postpartum psychosis? Do we not understand that the hormones of pregnancy can push depression to bipolarity or lead to psychosis, as in psychotic depression? Anyone of us is vulnerable to mental illness, even psychosis, given the right circumstances.

If we are to destigmatize mental illness, we must stop distancing ourselves from and judging certain diagnoses as worse than or other than. For years, I turned my rage onto myself rather than attack others. I internalized the stigmatization of certain brain disorders over others. For some reason, I accepted the diagnosis of depression. Bipolar, not so much.

Stop bashing troubled women who need our understanding, support, and treatment. Stop making distinctions that further stigmatize mental illness and marginalize those in need.

Learn more about stigma and mental illness for women, read this excellent article:

“I do not wish to be taken as a witch!” Stigma and Wellness
By Walker Karaa, PhD · STIGMAMA.COM · July 14, 2014


41 responses to “Women, Stigma, and Mental Illness”

  1. […] Previously Published on kittomalley.com […]

  2. I hope so, too!

  3. I enjoyed your.blog…can’t stand the stigma that the various forms of mi have… many times I have sctramed, “what if I had cancer” when told after a trip on mental hospital vacation to just make better choices. My hope is that education and understanding will continue to grow. Have a great weekend.

  4. Good to hear! You’ll find plenty of support online, as well.

  5. Yes thank you! We certaintly are not going this alone. We have surrounded ourselves with great professionals as well as a good support structure.

  6. Sorry for taking so long to reply. Just noticed that I had written you a response. Hopefully I thanked you on your site for reblogging this post.

    Here’s to living in the light. Thank you again for helping to remove stigma.

  7. Vic, check out your local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter at http://www.nami.org/. They have classes for both those diagnosed and their families.

  8. Great article and I look forward to reading more. I am married and my wife has been diagnosed bi-polar, among other things. We have had a rough go of it lately but I am trying to hang in there and be as supportive and knowledgeable as I can. I look forward to more insight and perhaps an understanding ear to bend!

  9. True – you might know better, but it doesn’t make any of us want to accept the truth sometimes. “Oh, it’s just depression” versus “Oh my god, I have [name more stigma ridden illness]”

    It’s a tough thing to come to terms with either way.

  10. Terrible that your mother is so critical of you three. Certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

    Self-stigma is very much alive. I, too, have experienced it, seeking treatment for the less stigmatized diagnosis of depression, as opposed to bipolar disorder. I reported depressive symptoms, but was in denial of hypomanic symptoms. I was a former psychotherapist of severely emotionally disturbed adolescents, so you’d think I’d have known better.

  11. Thank you so much, Dani.

  12. I think we all have a long way to go in fighting against the stigma of mental illness.
    My wife suffered from Post-partum depression (long before we met). She said other mothers were the worst stigmatisers. She got more understanding from “meathead” men (By that she means alpha-type men who’re of the rugby, racing and beer variety of kiwi guys who are not known for showing their feelings).

    My own mother on the other hand also suffered from PPD, and underwent long term hospitalisation and many courses of ECT (1970s style). She is very critical of me, my wife and of her brother in law (all three of us have Bipolar disorder). So, certainly there is a dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable mental illness.

    I think as a mental health consumer, and having worked as a support worker; the important thing for our recovery is gaining insight into our condition and how we interact with it.

    Sorry that’s a digression from the topic.

    We’re also guilty of self-stigma. We often believe our own bad press – that we’re not good enough, or not the same as other people.

    No, we’re not the same. But then, we have experience of emotion on a level that people typically will never feel. That gives us the ability to be sensitive and introspective in ways that most never arrive at.

    Sensitivity is my super-power [repeat after me!]

  13. It’s so true, Kitt.

    Blessings to you for your honesty.


  14. It is challenging to love those with mental illness who refuse medication. Denial runs deep.

  15. Thank you for sharing this, Kitt. It hit close to home as there are so many in my family that suffer from both. And because after three decades of watching those I love suffer, I still can do so little to help them heal.


  16. The effects of hormonal changes on the brain fascinates me. I look forward to future breakthroughs and greater knowledge of how the brain works. The work we do to educate the public will increase compassion and understanding, as you experienced, of ourselves and others.

  17. It wasn’t until menopause that I experienced my struggle with anxiety. The hormonal upheaval blindsided me. I never knew when I would experience pure panic. Making sense of it, finding a doctor who could help me–all of that was so overwhelming. I was embarrassed and hard enough on myself, I sure didn’t need society helping me to bash my self-esteem. As a culture I think we cut men so much more slack than we do women. But dealing with the anxiety, has made me more compassionate both towards others and even towards myself.

  18. Thank you. Yes, as we learn more about disabilities, the stigma is reduced.

  19.  Avatar

    I think it’s like some disabilities in children are more acceptable than others. Dyslexia? Cool. Autism’s on the rise. Down’s Syndrome and some others are not as acceptable. I think it changes the more society knows and understands.
    I also think there’s a strong, unwavering woman/mother archetype that’s ingrained in our…what’s the term, “shared conciousness” or something? Hard to fight that one.
    But you’re out there busting all those expectations and unspoken rules. Good for you!

  20. Your perspective was ultimately enriched on both sides~

  21. Not always, but overall, yes.

  22. The view must be great from either side~

  23. I have been on both sides of the “couch,” as both a psychotherapist and as a consumer.

  24. I was a Treatment Nurse in a Rehab Center in L.A. for 4 years.
    Not much surprises me anymore~

  25. You are most welcome!

  26. I always read a couple of posts prior to following anyone and I have to say, the pleasure is going to be mine in getting to know you. Belinda

  27. Yes, we can be harder on ourselves. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  28. You are most welcome. I wish you the best of treatment of your disorders, both through medication and psychotherapy.

  29. The critic always appears more harsh on women, or is it that we are harder on ourselves? I am.
    We are supposed to be “the rock”, despite the concept of men being the “stronger sex”. Myth.
    If you speak your truth then the repercussions are unknown but at least you live your life in TRUTH. Honor it.
    By each of us doing so, I hope that doors and windows thrown open; and judgement leaves while help and compassion enter the room.
    All the best

  30. I have both of those disorders bipolar and depression and also ocd..thank you so much for posting this..

  31. I judge not. The greater importance is the stigma we attach to the diagnosis. Just as the queer movement owned the labels used to denigrate them and in doing so fought the stigma and hate attached to those labels, so do those in the mad movement. Yes, not only do I have bipolar, but I am manic-depressive. It is a part of who I am, of how my brain works. It does not make me any less of a person. It is how God made me and I accept that. He had a reason, no doubt.

  32. One day, Kitt. And as soon as I hit the comment button, I realized I made a mistake. Instead of, “I am bipolar,” I should have said, “I have bipolar.” Still trying to correct that.

  33. Reblogged this on Finding your inner happiness and commented:
    So true. Some people do not stand up and ask for help because they’re too afraid of what the world will say. So they continue to live in the darkness; society prevents them from living in the light. Those who stigmastise are merely small-minded. And we need to open their eyes to the true reality of mental illness.

  34. I get it, Susan. I really do. There is a fear of bipolar disorder, in our culture and in ourselves, for we often internalize that fear.

  35. Your assessment is no doubt realistic. But, if I were to specifically address the collective community advocating for the destigmatization of brain disorders, the least we can do as a community is not point fingers at and judge each other as less than us. But, yes, we do still measure neurological differences not only by diagnosis, but by degree, just as we differentiate between an Aspie and an Autist, when both deal with the same or similar neurological issues along a spectrum.

    As you no doubt know, I do not condone violence against others in any form. My professional career as psychotherapist included working with battered women and abused and troubled children and adolescents. As a parent, as a parent with bipolar disorder, I see things as not so black and white. In fact even before I became a parent, working with dysfunctional families themselves taught me a great deal of compassion, for people can love each other and do their best and still hurt each other deeply.

  36. So true. For some reason, it’s easy for me to discuss my depression, yet I still hide the fact that I am bipolar.

  37. Yes, I have noticed certain mental illnesses are “okay” while others are stigmatized. Depression and OCD are okay. But Bipolar Disorder is not. Neither is Asperger’s. Nor psychosis. Post-partum illnesses are more acceptable than those that are just part of the person for life. Etc. etc. But then life is not fair– nor will it ever be. But people could become more accepting. I just don’t see that happening. Not when there are mentally ill mass murderers, etc. But, it could be argued, that if there was not such a stigma and such bullying, these people could have gotten help and thus avoided violence. I don’t have much hope for the masses de-stigmatizing lots of mental illnesses.

  38. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  39. I tweeted and shared this, Kitt – your posts are always cogent and help me feel les alone in terms of my ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder and with life in general.

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