Posted by: VoiceinRecovery | July 26, 2010

Proud! Not Prejudiced: Has Anti-Stigma Gone Overboard?

Written by: Sarah Henderson

Earlier today I ran across something that struck me as strange: a Facebook page entitled “Either you have it or someone you know does.” Seeing as that could have meant anything from Alzheimer’s to herpes, I clicked on it and found myself staring at a square black icon with bright pink script boldly proclaiming, “Bipolar and Proud!”

And I found myself thinking, Really?

Don’t get me wrong. I have bipolar and I am not ashamed. However, I am not proud either. What exactly is there to be proud of? I didn’t do anything, didn’t accomplish anything to GET bipolar. It’s simply a fact, a genetic accident, like having blue eyes or curly hair. Also, bipolar isn’t really something I AM, it’s something I have. And it’s disturbing to me when I see people taking on a disease like an identity. Because I’ve done that.

There was a time in my life when I “identified” as an Anorexic, a Bulimic, a Cutter, Bipolar, an Incest Survivor; there was a time when I collected diagnoses and disorders the way some people collect bumper stickers, proudly displaying them to show who I was and what I stood for.

The only problem was, it was all bullshit.

I used these patterns of behavior and the labels that came with them to make up for the fact that I didn’t have the first clue who I was; that as a child I had never been given the chance to cultivate an authentic, stable Self that felt worthy of my given name, as opposed to a diagnostic code. I didn’t yet understand that there was more to my story than you could find in my therapy chart; that I had abilities and talents that couldn’t be expressed within the walls of a hospital.

I had one psychiatrist that kept telling me over and over again, “All you know is how to be a patient. I can’t wait until you figure out how to be YOU.”

Eventually, that happened. But not until I had literally been kicked out of treatment (twice), and forced to sit through a couple of very uncomfortable years where I eventually figured out that while being sick was easy (in that it was familiar), being recovered is far more interesting.

If you’re dealing with a mental illness, by all means, don’t be ashamed. If you’re figuring out a way to be a person who has a disease instead of being the disease, be proud of that! However, if you find that you’re proud to simply have a disease, you might want to ask yourself why.

My fear is that in some areas we’ve gone overboard to be anti-stigma, to the point where one has to be proud of a mental illness, diametrically opposite to being ashamed of one. Personally, I don’t think either gives you a leg up on beating it. Treating it for what it is- an illness, inherently neither good nor evil- may be the only may be the only way to find a balance.

© Sarah Henderson 2010


  1. Oh! I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I was diagnosed with BPD six years ago, got my first job in mental health four years ago, and founded a mental health nonprofit org three years ago.

    While I’m all about ending stigma and increasing education about mental illness, I have never, ever been “proud” about it. If I could be cured five minutes from now, I’d totally go for it.

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of “professional patients” who wrap their entire identity around self-injury and mental illness.

    I think that if I started going around and saying that I was “proud” to have BPD it would keep me sick and even more distanced from recovery.

    Do I accept it as part of my life? Yep. Proud? No.

  2. Sarah, I love this post – so powerful, insightful and well-written! To me, the proud and ashamed reactions make me think of having an all-or-nothing attitude (i.e., all: I’m super proud of having a disorder; or nothing: I’m ashamed). Any kind of rigid thinking is unhealthy.

    I love that you’re encouraging being proud of yourself as a person, and someone who’s trying hard to recover. And that you’re not letting labels speak for who you are. An important and much-needed message. Again, love this!

    Thanks for posting this, Kendra! 🙂

    • Thank you as always for reading & commenting Margarita!

  3. I agree that it it’s important to recovery to take a step away from your illness, to identify with them rather than as them. I distinctly remember, many years ago, one of my best friends pointing out that my illness wasn’t all there was to me.

    I believe that seeking the things that make me “me”, has given me the ability to seriously seek recovery. At one point I believed that depression/anxiety/self-harm etc. etc. etc. were all there was to me, and if they were stripped away there would be nothing left. That assumption was a huge barrier to my ability to recover, and letting go of these labels as defining me means that I am far more able to live a normal life.

    I think the problem with the use of the word ‘pride’ is that it is often used as a reason not to seek recovery – I am proud of being able to do all the things I do in spite of my illness however, and I’m proud of surviving my worst times and leaving behind some of my more self-destructive behaviours. I’m actually friends with one of the founders of the UK Mad Pride movement, and I believe that this kind of pride is the point, but it is too easily misappropriated in my opinion to be really useful for approaching recovery.


  4. You go girl! labels are devastating to personal growth. you can’t possibly become yourself and act like yourself when you are busy labeling yourself every way possible.

  5. Great Post and one I happen to agree with. I do not think the type of thinking you mentioned in your post do anyone’s mind about people who have a mental illness. In fact, I believe that in some cases it can make the stigma worse.

    Some of the zeal people have exhibited about being absolutely politically correct when it comes to talking about someone with mental health issues has actually made me feel guilty at times about a familiar joke my daughter and I say to each other about me being “crazy”. Or it has made me feel guilty about using the word mental illness sometimes on my blog, because it is a word that more people understand than “mental health issue”.

  6. The point the author makes is technically correct, but I think what nobody here fully understands is that the use of the word “pride” by oppressed groups doesn’t mean self-congratulation as it normally does, but only the opposite of shame (which is what people like me, a gay man with mental illlness, has confronted on both counts).

    In other words, nobody actually walks around gushing with pride because they’re gay / bipolar etc. – what we are is saying we’re proud of ourselves for not hiding.

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