When we think of discrimination, images such as being turned down for a job or even cruel remarks from an unknowing stranger may come into our minds, but oftentimes discrimination can land much closer to home. Sometimes it is the people closest to us, such as friends or family members, who are the guilty parties. This type of discrimination can be subtle and even be construed as well-meaning, so it’s hard to stand up against it but equally frustrating and painful for those of us who are living with a mental illness.
When I was in my early 30’s, I made the decision to go back to school. It was a very stressful time in my life. My husband was in graduate school, our first child had special needs, we had toddler and I was pregnant with my 3rd. However, I felt that I could successfully complete my degree and applied to school. When I told my family members of my decision, they were less than thrilled. I received numerous comments along the lines of, “Are you sure you can handle this?” or “You have more on your plate than you can handle, why are you doing this to yourself?” or my personal favorite was “I’ll just wait 20 minutes and this will blow over and you’ll be obsessing about something new.” I wondered how my friends and family would have responded had they not known I was living with bipolar disorder. Would they still be concerned? Quite possibly yes, we did have a lot going on in our lives, after all. However, I firmly believe their responses would have been different. Rather than framing me in the light of some delicate artifact that could break apart at any moment, their responses would have been more encouraging or matter of fact with less concerned questioning.
This is the type of discrimination that people don’t see. It’s within the family unit and behind closed doors. These types of responses erode confidence and imply that not only are we not capable of making decisions, we aren’t capable of fulfilling our own life goals. This communication style stops us in our tracks and creates doubt where support should be.
So, the question remains, what is one to do? How do we fight familial discrimination? We can’t ask our family members to be less concerned about our well-being, if we are lucky enough to be surrounded by people who care. The answer is to educate them. Let them know how their behavior and responses affect you. Give them an example of another response that is actually empowering such as, “I’m proud of you for wanting to pursue your goals. What can I do to help you? Let’s think of some supports to have in place for when you start.” The fact is that change begins with us. It’s our job to teach them. We don’t have to be passive victims in acts of discrimination. Give your mental health a voice. You never know how much it could impact you have or how far reaching the message.