Invalidating Mental Illness in Advocates

Hi everyone. Today, March 30th, is World Bipolar Day. Bipolar is still a highly stigmatized mental illness, despite leaps and bounds forward in the understanding of its spectrum, and people who live with this illness are often treated differently, or even badly.

Mental illness advocates are people with mental illnesses who talk about and support mental health awareness. They live this truth every day, and they work to help others suffering as well and end the ridiculous stigma that still plagues our society. Their raw understanding and struggle gives them a heck of a lot of empathy.

Some people seem to think these advocates must be infallible, never making mistakes, never catching poor attitudes or letting their bad days affect their moods. They are not allowed to experience their illness as it happens.

But let me tell you. They have days where they can barely make it out of bed. They have days where they’re spiraling downward at a rapid pace and can barely stop it. They can wake up feeling great and energetic, and then their mood swings the other way. They can feel the physical manifestations of their inner battle. They can feel incredibly frustrated, or irritable, or snippy. Maybe they’re barely hanging on by their fingernails, and they fear that one day those nails that have held them thus far are just going to break off.

Sometimes they snap. Sometimes they snark. Sometimes they get exasperated. Sometimes they say things they don’t mean. Sound familiar? Yes, because they’re human.

I have a friend who is living and struggling with bipolar. They are an outspoken mental illness advocate, they have written a book about their illness, and they are transparent and sincere and always there for people who are also struggling with their own illnesses. They are one of the strongest people I know, and also one of the most inspiring in my life right now.  Even when they are feeling horrible, they are always there for others.

So one day, when their illness got the better of them and they expressed anger toward someone in a group we’re both in, the words from one of the admin shook me.

“For claiming to be a mental health advocate, you sure know how to bring people down.”

My friend was in a bad place and it had gotten the better of them. Before these words from the admin were posted, my friend had quickly realized how bad it was to snap at someone and they wanted to correct their attitude. They thoroughly apologized, contacted the other person privately and tried to make sure they were okay. My friend is always very transparent about their struggle, which at the time was on the edge of no return. However, they did not use it as an excuse or as a crutch.

My friend decided the best thing to do was take a social media break and possibly contact a crisis centre. The group is generally very understanding and forgiving when it comes to mental illnesses and their effects, and the admins all knew my friend was on the edge.

But after my friend left the group to go on their break, the other person told admin that she had ended up harming herself.

This person’s mental illness was considered more valid than my friend’s, so my friend was banned from returning to the group.

My friend, after recovering enough that they could function again and enjoy being online, discovered that they had been banned and blocked. Six weeks of messages and apologies to the admin yielded nothing but unaccepted message requests. Total, intentional silence. It continued to eat away at my friend until some other people from the group poked and prodded the admin enough that one of them finally messaged my friend.

And the admin thoroughly blamed my friend for the other person’s self-harm.

Knowing how much my friend was struggling to keep their head above water. Knowing how my friend was struggling with suicide.

Not mentioning the sheer liability of admins of a non mental health related group counseling a person harming themselves, I was stunned by the admin’s ugly words. My friend was immensely upset. They work so hard to help others, but the admin had all decided otherwise due to this incident.

Now, how could this have been handled differently?

Certainly, one could say that a mental illness advocate shouldn’t have lashed out at all. But mistakes happen, no matter what kind of person you are in this world. My friend has worked harder to not display anger or impatience, and their positive progress shows.

The admin could have validated what my friend was going through. They could have accepted that they were undergoing a mental health crisis just as valid as the person who ended up self-harming.

You just don’t blame someone for someone else’s self-harm. Especially when you KNOW the person you’re blaming is in a very, very bad place.

You don’t get to decide whose mental health is more valid.

You don’t get to decide whose mental illness isn’t worth being concerned about.

But my friend continues to be silenced over this.

This World Bipolar Day, help to destigmatize this and other mental illnesses. Talk about what makes you strong, and what you admire in your loved ones or public figures who openly struggle with mental illness. Open up the conversation.

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