Take it From Me: Making the Decision to Disclose, or "F (ight) Stigma"

Jacquese Armstrong, Survivor Columnist

I have often thought that if everyone who has--or cared about someone who has--a mental illness stood up against stigma, we would outnumber the rest. Where would the stigma be then? And stigma is real. It can not only make your social life uncomfortable, but it can greatly affect your ability to earn a decent living.

So, why would someone want to disclose their mental health challenges?

There is a movement that came out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in which peers (the term some of us prefer) or psychiatric survivors fought and are still fighting for rights. The rights of all human-beings: dignity and a self-guided life. We are providing mental health care for ourselves in the form of peer counselors, peer advocates, social workers, therapists and respite houses instead of hospitals and so on. There’s really a lot going on and it would be almost impossible to be involved if one didn’t disclose.

Additionally, disclosure provides freedom to come out of the shadows into the sun and be the person your Maker intended you to be, who you are. It is a tremendous boost to self-esteem when done at the right time and a great stress reliever. I speak from experience. Although I am a psychiatric survivor of 34 years, I have only disclosed since 2006 when I agreed to be interviewed for a documentary on mental illness and minorities. Looking back, that decision was the beginning of me making sense out of this “mess.”

Before 2006, “mental illness” was my most well-guarded secret. I lost a lot of friends in those first couple years and there were whispers and stares, and even though I was in and out of the hospital, I kept the lies going. The lies explained the eight years it took me to finish college, the many colleges I attended, the disappearances, the leaving and calling off from work. The world definitely doesn’t make it easy for you to resume the race, and the charade became a job within itself. It also led to undue stress and anxiety. It fueled my paranoid symptoms which at the time were not under control at all.

Years ago, 33 to be exact, my grandparents had a discussion with me about my illness. They said, “Jacquese, this is God’s Will for you…you have to accept it.” At the time, I thought they were “crazier” than I was, but now, I see the wisdom in what they told me. You can’t heal from something you don’t accept. And you must heal. You can fight against it, but in the end, you’re fighting against yourself.

Admitting my reality gave me a peace I can’t describe. I came to realize that I was stigmatizing myself by living in fear and shame. I was playing into the stigma game. And I asked myself how I could call for an end to stigma and discrimination if I was ashamed myself.

Everyone (well, most people) wants to find purpose and meaning in life. Why am I here? Why am I suffering? These questions lead to purpose. For me, if I have to suffer (and I have), then let me help someone else not suffer. Let me be the bridge so that they can rejoin society’s reality without missing too many steps. Let them be able to resume the opportunities I had to let go of because of my challenges.

This is so important to me that I started Project Onset, still in its infancy, which is a part of the African-American Outreach program of NAMI-NJ (National Alliance on Mental Illness-New Jersey). Through testimony from a person’s point of view who went through a college-age onset (me), a parent of a college-age student’s point of view and a mental health professional’s point of view, we try to give college-age young adults and their families a “heads up” for what is in the realm of possibility for mental health in those crucial years.

In the end, I just want to be able to make some sense of my pain and helping people is the best way I know to do that. So, I educate, motivate and inspire from a mental health perspective on a grass roots level and I know that’s needed. It is a purpose-filled stance in my life, driven by the desire to help eradicate stigma for the next generation of survivors.

That is why I made the decision to disclose my psychiatric illness, to be a blessing to someone else. In return, I received freedom and meaning. I call it a fair exchange.