The two smiling women are pictured with their arms around each other. Both are wearing t-shirts, each bearing a single word. Sounds like a pretty innocuous picture, doesn’t it? Add to the image that one of the women’s shirts says “bipolar,” and you have a photograph that causes strong reactions, different reactions, in members of our community.
This “talk therapy” approach is similar to the one advocated by another celebrity-run cause, No Kidding, Me Too. Started by actor Joey Pantoliano, who lives with depression, the organization seeks to address the isolation that can be caused by “the scarlet letter of mental illness.” Dedicated celebrities, especially those who are either living with a condition or have a family member who is affected can be powerful voices for change—who doesn’t remember the contribution that actor Michael J. Fox made to his cause when he chose to come forward as someone living with Parkinson’s Disease?
The key here is in the choice: Fox chose to publicly disclose his condition, just as Glenn Close’s sister chose to don a t-shirt reading “bipolar” and appear in photographs and a public service announcement. Nobody wants to be objectified or forced to “wear” a label that someone else has devised for them. The people in the BringChange2Mind video showed up at Grand Central Station wearing condition-specific shirts because they believed by getting these words right into the middle of society they are effectively taking the “scarlet” out of those letters.
Others have felt as though they or someone they love have been captured in that photo wearing a label someone else stuck around their neck—on a visceral level it feels like stigma to them, a lack of understanding comes from without. In reality, the way you choose to react to stigma—either by disclosing or not disclosing your condition—is personal, just as personal as the experience itself.
NAMI recognizes that stigma can and does cause a lot of distress for people in our community, but we also recognize that the fight against that stigma does not have a “one size fits all” solution. We welcome your responses to all our features because no matter how many different ways there are to get there, we all share a common goal: improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.