Why I shouldn’t be labelled as brave for speaking about my mental illness

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Since my diagnosis of Bipolar in 2012, I’ve been open about it. Family and friends knew what I was struggling with from the very beginning. I’m glad I took this approach, it’s meant the people that are supportive and open minded have stayed in my life, and we have grown closer. People that couldn’t handle the idea that I had a serious mental illness left my life, and I’m happier for it. I’m blessed that I have so many people that care for me and want to understand my condition. Not everyone is as lucky as me, and have been shunned by family and close friends.

There is one thing that frustrates me though that I’m often told; that I’m brave. Brave that I speak out about my condition. Brave that I say things that are ugly and unpalatable. Brave that I never censor the struggles I face daily. I have never shied away from the label of Bipolar. It plays a major role in my life and I will never stop speaking out about it. I hate the idea that you have to be labelled as brave to speak out about mental illness. Would you call me brave if I broke my leg and asked you to sign my cast? Would I be brave if I used an asthma inhaler in front of a friend? Would I be brave if I started raising awareness of diabetes? No, because these are seen as acceptable, everyday injuries and illnesses.

I understand why people would say this to me. Bipolar and other associated conditions are not spoken about openly in society. You’re expected to hide mental illness because it’s the polite thing to do. It can’t be fixed as easily as a broken bone so people aren’t sure how to react towards you. They can’t see it so they struggle to relate and sympathise. When you’re asked “How are you?” and instead of replying “I’m fine” you reply “I’ve just come out of a manic episode and feel emotionally and physically exhausted.” people tend to freeze. They stumble over their words and try to change the subject to a lighter tone. Instead of being spoken about freely, people want it to be packaged up neatly away so it doesn’t interrupt their daily lives. It’s seen as a uncomfortable nuisance, and you’re an attention seeking distraction.

I don’t want to be brave for speaking out. I want mental illnesses to be normalised, to the point where a bad mental health day can be spoken about as easily as stubbing a toe is. I’m not ashamed for having Bipolar, but in our current climate more and more people are. The next time someone calls you brave, or you say this to someone else for speaking out, challenge them, challenge yourself; why exactly? It’s their or even your own preconception of mental illness that creates that reaction. Defy the stigma and root out the cause.

4 Comments

  1. Ella Morris March 6, 2017 / 9:06 pm

    Anybody I guess that aims to normalise what should be normal, knowing that you can face prejudice is considered brave. It depends how it’s delivered. Rather than saying brave I would say, bravo for making your voice heard and I guess that is a derivative of the word brave. I know what you mean though…

  2. Lee Sullivan March 15, 2017 / 7:31 pm

    I understand what you’re saying, but people I know who suffer from serious physical illness, injury, or painful inherent conditions hate being told they are brave, as well. As one friend put it, “I didn’t choose this, so how can I be brave for living with it? It’s just the way things are.” What is there that seems so dismissive about being told you are brave for being sick, or for talking about being sick? Is it a way for the Normal to avoid dealing with you, or relating to you as a fellow human? Are they implying, unconsciously or otherwise, that you DID choose illness, bravely, so it’s your fault if it hurts? Whereas they made the more sensible decision to NOT be ill, and therefore avoid pain and the need to be brave? Would they say the same to a mountain-climber who had sustained injuries as a result of his conscious choice to climb, and yet was planning to climb again? “More power to you, man, you must be brave”? What do you think?

    • Katie Conibear March 15, 2017 / 7:53 pm

      I think it’s important to have an open debate about this when someone uses the ‘brave’ word for any type of chronic or long term illness, mental or physical. I think with mental illness, there is so much stigma attached to it and how we are portrayed as a ‘nut job’ ‘crazy’ ‘unstable’ that people automatically believe you’re being courageous for speaking up, for putting something so personal out there. There are so many people, including our own government who are willing to undermine mental illness as less debilitating as other disabilities, that coming out, so to speak with a mental illness is seen as brave. I think people with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia can relate, as they are hidden illnesses, so make it harder for people to relate and show compassion towards. Don’t get me wrong, compassion is important and I wish more people were, but there are others ways of showing it, other than the brave word. Simply listening and acknowledging what someone is going through is a start.

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