A Story of Stigma

My Story

By Mike Scott 

Hi!  My name is Mike.  I am a support worker for people with diverse needs.  I also support my four children.  Three of my kids have special needs in mental health.  They need help coping with anxiety conditions, including panic attacks, bipolar disorder, which is a mood disorder and other challenges.  I personally have overcome bipolar disorder myself to have many successes in life.

I am an artist.  I write poetry, philosophy and music.  I enjoy photography and cinema, going to the movies, or staying home to watch a movie.  I have always had a strong athletic interest too and I still take part in hiking, camping, swimming and sports with my family.

I knew I was different even back in elementary school.  I was both creative and spiritual, with an edge.  In grade five I took an interest in guitar class and soon got my own guitar.  My parents loved Rock and Roll, Motown music and even Disco.  I learned to love it all too.

I loved writing.  In grade six I wrote a twenty-page love letter to a girl that I really liked and mailed it to her when she was on holidays across Canada for spring break.   That was not that well-received…   I also wrote a fifteen-page science-fiction story for grade seven Language Arts class.  That was appreciated much more.  By grade eight, I had an electric guitar and became much more interested in Hard Rock.  I grew out long hair and wore jeans and leather jackets.  I started drinking alcohol.  This got me in trouble.  I had run-ins with the police and did some stupid things, like making myself really, really ill.

As a student I had close to straight A’s right through grade twelve, and into my second semester at University.  That is when I began to lose focus and pay more attention to partying and experimenting with drugs.  That is when I began to have very serious episodes in bipolar disorder that could have killed me or others.  I had a problem with driving fast and had many car accidents.  That was definitely my dangerous side. I have learned my lesson. Safe-driving saves lots of money, prevents injury, pain and potentially loss of life. I also avoid driving if I am feeling emotional or detached, or in a mood.

I was deep in mood, emotion and concscious thought at many times in those years. Because I wasn’t getting help with this, and hadn’t figured out my moods for myself, it wasn’t always easy, or even possible for me to slow down.    I believed in mind over matter and was fearless with that.  I have done a lot of cliff-diving, into water and I also jumped out of a perfectly good airplane from up to four thousand feet, eleven times.  That was partly in an effort to become a licensed instructor and get free jumps!  

I put myself into a lot of rough places with my expressive behaviour and fearless nature, situations where I was lucky to make it out without more damage.  I was rather “out there”, and not aware of some expected boundaries for my enthusiasm and loud nature at times.  Many people didn’t know how to react.  Many still don’t.

People started to treat me like trouble and assumed that I was a bad student, up to no-good.  That was not all true.  I still aimed to be kind and promote wellness.  I still got straight A’s. Often stigma got the best of me.

Stigma is the negative view that a person or group of people have of another person or themselves.  Stigma is often misinformed and based on assumptions.  Stereotypes are judgements of people based on beliefs of how a certain type of other people behave.  For example, some might think that all people with a diagnosis in mental health like bipolar disorder, are always ill, or dangerous, or unreliable.  This belief may arise because the negative view is popular in some parts of the media or because some people that live with the condition have shown these characteristics in a major way, like in the news, that people remember. 

The idea of a stereotype can transfer negative views onto a person with a belief about them that is inaccurate and based on misinformation, such as those popular views that are mistakenly promoted in some media portrayals.  Stereotypes lump someone into a category, where they are believed to share the same characteristics of everyone else in that category.  This is wrong.  We are all different. We need to consider people’s personality and try to share empathy.  Try to understand their position, human to human, not letting stigma or judgmental guesses creep in.

People living with a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder can become ill in certain situations, but that can often be prevented by proper attention to healthy living.  A person with bipolar disorder might be extremely talented at music or science, and not dangerous or unreliable at all.  

Stigma often develops into discrimination based on stereotypes, rumours and by not looking past the surface of a person or situation.  Discrimination can hurt people by depriving them of respect, personal needs and by excluding them when they deserve to be included.

Because of the clothes that I was wearing, attitude and my long hair, some groups of people disrespected me, especially by not giving me time to share my views, when other people did receive that opportunity.  People, including professionals should have known better.  We are all people, and we all deserve respect.  Every one of us.

Truthfully, I was judged almost by my own choice with a stigma. I was getting in trouble.  My friends were getting in trouble.  In some ways I chose to be known as trouble even though I really wasn’t…. Well at least: not to begin with.

I was never mean, but I could have cost lives or lost my own life more than once.  While difficulties in focus landed me in motor vehicle accidents, street drugs caused me to get in other dangerous situations.  On one occasion when I tried a harder drug, I ended up smashing a guitar over a drum-set at a party and wound up in hospital with my reputation permanently damaged.  I am flat out lucky to be alive.  I stay away from hard drugs.

Meanwhile, the stigma from those episodes has had a lasting dramatic effect, even to today, over twenty-five years later.  I have persevered and overcome obstacles.

I achieved my psychology major in my bachelor’s from Simon Fraser University in 1997.  I completed my degree while I was fighting off dangerous manic episodes and hospitalizations.  It was the worst time for my illness.  I still learned a lot from my school, but I made sure to also learn a lot from my experience. Because of my illness my grades in finishing my degree were not seen as excellent at the time.  My first job with my degree was bagging groceries and collecting shopping carts at a grocery store.

In 2000, I got married and started a family.  I have not had a severe struggle with bipolar disorder since my last clinical episode in 2001.  My battle has been more about the stigma since then.

 In order to support my wife and baby, I started my electrical apprenticeship within the first few months out of hospital.  My recovery included five years of hard, dirty, and dangerous work in construction.  I became a licensed Red Seal electrician by 2007.  I soon became a successful foreman in charge of projects and crews of workers.

In this time, I also began coaching my sons in baseball and soccer.  We won nine championships.  I also have helped my two stepdaughters with school and at home over the last seven years.  The youngest kids are still in grade school, grades seven and twelve.  Many members of our family have struggled with mental health concerns.

My oldest son, my two stepdaughters and myself have conditions that require special attention and treatment according to medical and educational professionals.  Some of us require medication or special help from doctors, teachers, and caregivers, to take care of ourselves best.

We also have challenges in social interactions that can be caused by how we express ourselves and how we behave differently sometimes.  These challenges often come from the environment and social networks too.  Others perceive us based on their experience with us, but also based on what others say, and based on stigma and stereotypes that come with our differences and diagnoses.  

It is hard to know how to act sometimes.

Again, I will emphasize, this stigma still hurts me today, after I have been healthy for twenty years, just because of mistakes that I made back then, that are still connected to my diagnosis, behaviour and how others view me today.

Once I had made a few mistakes, it was hard to get away from them.   In some cases, it was too late.  I had lost credibility, even in the fight for justice.  Some friends eventually just ghosted me, as if it was my fault and left me stuck in problems that stigma had caused.  The part that was my fault was the over-indulgence in drugs and alcohol.

The social implications of substance abuse can be so awful, like losing many friends or hurting people or dying.  With the lethal street drugs today, there is no way that I would ever take that risk.

For me, the stigma of mental illness was largely tied to the episodes that I had.  My behaviour outside of the episodes, to some people, seems to confirm stigmatizing views.  My personality can often be completely misjudged.  Once people have a stereotype in their head, it can be hard to shake it.  We need patience, effort and mutual respect to overcome stigma.

Even then, time constraints can still be an issue.  People have treated me as this stereotyped version of a troublemaker, according to stigma.  Sometimes, in the real world, we just don’t get the chance to explain ourselves and dispel stigma, if we don’t get the right time and place.  That’s why, in my opinion we always need to have an ear open for others and try to be willing to discuss mental health with others.

Sometimes my attitude was a problem.  It was like I was “too cool” or too full of pride, to associate with a teacher or someone that wasn’t in my group, even if they offered help. Sometimes I was just scared or embarrassed.  This is how I closed myself off from help, including from friends.

After the 1990’s, the strategies that I learned for mental health and to battle stigma, have worked for me.  They have got me through with a happy home and great potential for the future. For stigma especially, I think we need to try to speak our mind when we get the chance, but not always push it if we don’t think it’s the right place, audience or if we don’t have enough time.

We need to be confident in communications but also patient and kind.  Some people still won’t get it.  We have to be accepting; remain patient and forgiving of others, and ourselves.

I continue to be involved in research on mental health after publishing a project as a co-author in 2016 with the University of British Columbia in the Department of Psychiatry.  I have just become a part of the Family Research Advisory Panel with the UBC Faculty of Medicine.

Having personally lived with a mental health diagnosis for close to thirty years, I truly appreciate the chance to understand and contribute to research and studies in academics and healthcare, especially how that relates to children, youth and families.

I am currently a support worker.  I work with kids who need extra help in elementary schools.  I have also worked with youth and adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

I retired as an electrician and construction worker, mainly due to physical injury and finding opportunity in mental health research and support work.

Don’t let stigma get you down.  Life is hard sometimes.  That is a fact of life.  Stories and kindness help.  Empathy and optimism help.

Make good friends.  My wife has been one of my best friends since the early 1990’s because we talk with honesty, care and humour.

For mental health, I always aim to maintain physical health by getting enough exercise, getting enough sleep, and having a nutritious diet.  If I need help, I get in touch with healthcare and I always follow through with prescriptions.

When I suffered the worst from my mood disorder, the strategy of calming myself became so important.  Deep breathing and self-reassuring words have been most valuable in helping me to ground myself in stressful or surreal times.

In my study with UBC, the focus on maintaining “Hope” was identified as a key to mental health.  I build my own hope with optimism.  I learn to adapt by knowing that things will always work out, one way or another.  Efforts in optimism help me to get past moods that could otherwise be awful or terrifying.

I set my hopes high to include everyone.  If I show empathy for others to try to understand their feelings, it seems more likely that they will show empathy for me.

Empathy is our ability and the work we do to understand how other people feel.  We work with others best if we understand their needs.  Some of us just hope for a cup of water, a meal, clothes, shelter and a bed.

Others are fortunate to hope for some other cool things, like electronics or even vacations and cars.  We may want more friends or more time with our friends. Sometimes to get through stigma and illness it just takes people from our social network to show empathy and engage on our needs.

We can always find hope. I make that clear to myself. I don’t ever let myself deny it.  When I am feeling not well or if I am feeling stressed out, I look to what I am doing today.  I look to find some moment of enjoyment or progress.  I look to helpful memories and even just to feel glad when I can have thoughts to myself to think about things.  I also look forward to success in tomorrow, whether that is a high score, a good grade or just some comfort and fun.

For the benefit of everyone I aim to maintain Respect and Empathy for other people and their goals.  In my life, for mental health and for my goals, I aim to be Calm and Optimistic.

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