For several years, she wrote about her bipolar disorder under a pseudonym. She described how she’d been hospitalized four times, twice since her first child was born. She explained how she went off her medication during both of her pregnancies and how each time — once as the mother of a newborn and then again weeks into her second pregnancy — she was escorted from her home in police handcuffs, defiant.
She blogged to connect and reach other mothers grappling with mental illness. Ultimately, however, she decided that hiding her identity was actually perpetuating the shame long associated with mental disorders.
So even as her parents urged her not to, Jennifer Marshall in 2013 typed her real name on a blog post, hit publish and waited for the reaction.
With those keystrokes, Marshall, who lives in Ashburn, Virginia, joined a growing community of people with mental illness who have chosen to out themselves.
Marshall describes a surge of strength as she shared her story. “It’s human connection,” she said. “When you find someone who has been able to overcome something that you’re struggling with, it’s really powerful.”
Likened by some to the gay rights movement, with its beginnings in personal revelation, the groundswell to lift the stigma connected with mental illness has had a multiplying effect accelerated by social media. The more people who “come out” about their mental illness and are met with acceptance, the more others feel it’s safe to do the same.
Since the beginning of this year, millions have tweeted about their mental illness, many using established hashtags. For example, the campaigns #imnotashamed and #sicknotweak were tweeted 75,000 times and 139,000 times, respectively, since Jan. 1, according to an analysis from Twitter.
The movement #BellLetsTalk, which began in Canada to “break down the barriers associated with mental illness,” received 6.8 million tweets in January from all over the world.
While U.S. mental-health experts said there is not yet scientific data tracking the increase in voluntary disclosures of mental illness, social media has been employed so much to that end that a former Johns Hopkins professor is studying behavioral trends by mining tweets in which people talk explicitly about their mental illnesses.
“Some of it is to end the stigma; some is an explanation of past behavior,” said Glen Coppersmith, who recently started a company, Qntfy, to analyze mental-health data. He added that he “wholeheartedly” believes such disclosures have risen to the level of a movement.
The trend has been buoyed, experts say, by advancements in neuroscience that have enabled people to cast off stereotypes of mental illness as a personal failing and view it instead as the result of physiological changes in the brain that can be treated much like physical illnesses.
“We’ve become a much more sophisticated society about mental health,” said Bernice Pescosolido, a professor at Indiana University and an expert in mental-health stigma. “As people, we are opening up more about issues of race, issues of gender, issues of health generally. This is intertwined with the fabric of life.”
But prejudice persists, particularly in the workplace, and Pescosolido and other experts say it remains to be seen whether the outpouring that is confined largely to social media will translate into advocacy and less discrimination in daily life.
The stigma “is still out there,” Pescosolido said. “I think it’s an opportunity. We’ve had a resurgence in the science; we’ve had a resurgence of people coming forward.”
Sarah Fader did not want her children to grow up thinking they had to be ashamed of their feelings, as she had been her entire life. So she decided to open up about the panic disorder from which she had suffered since she was a teenager.
In early 2014, she penned “Fighting Against the Stigma of Mental Illness” for the Huffington Post to describe her struggles. She described how others had belittled her for her illness, telling her that she was merely being “dramatic” or disparaging her use of antidepressants. Hundreds of people from all over the world sent messages relating their own experiences .
Then Fader met Allie Burke, who lives with schizophrenia, through a mental-health advocacy community on Facebook. The two women teamed up to launch Stigma Fighters, a blog and nonprofit group dedicated to giving other people a platform to share their stories.
Since its launch in March 2014, hundreds of people have written pieces for the blog. Fader originally let contributors write anonymously or under first names, but then Marshall reached out to Fader through social media to share her own epiphany about using her real name .
So now Fader requires almost everyone to write under their full names. Those who overcome their fears of being judged start to view themselves as survivors.
Amy Bleuel, who was depressed and plagued with suicidal thoughts most of her life, noticed the same phenomenon when she launched Project Semicolon in 2013. Her father died by suicide when she was 18, and she knew that he, like she, had felt alone in his illness.
In April 2013, after a conversation with a friend yielded the idea, Bleuel tweeted a request for people to draw a semicolon on their wrists.
People with mental illness often think their lives are over. But the semicolon signifies that there’s more to your story, Bleuel said. Since then, thousands of people around the world have posted pictures of themselves on social media with real semicolon tattoos.
The tattoos serve as permanent reminders that life does go on.
“People want to know they’re not suffering in silence,” Bleuel said. “We want to have that discussion. We’re done losing people to suicide; we’re done not knowing what to do.”
The movement to lift the stigma is also changing how mental illness is portrayed in popular culture and the arts.
In the FX Network show “You’re the Worst,” the audience came to know one of the main characters as a gregarious party girl with, yes, questionable morals. Then, in the second season, it is revealed that Gretchen Cutler’s lifestyle is a diversion from recurrent depression. When it comes roaring back, she fears telling her boyfriend that “my brain is broken.”
The portrayal was widely acclaimed.
“I continually run into people who suffer from depression, and it was something very secretive, and we’re just seemingly starting to come into the light a little more,” said Stephen Falk, the show’s creator. “I thought if we could help that process along at all, then we’d be doing a service.”
That’s what Rachel Griffin, a singer-songwriter in New York, had in mind when she embarked on writing a musical about life in a psychiatric ward. The main character, Jane, is a young woman with severe panic disorder and depression. Throughout the show, another character portrays Depression — always hovering, sometimes controlling the conversation. Jane’s symptoms worsen until she checks herself into a mental hospital.
Griffin sees her show as doing for mental illness what “Rent” did for HIV/AIDS by presenting complex characters who are more than just their illnesses.
She started writing the show while riding the subway as an outlet for her depression and anxiety. “It’s about empowerment,” she said.
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