On Mental Illness: No Shame, No Blame, No Low Self-Esteem

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday May 31, 2011 - 03:10:00 PM

People’s perceptions about mental illness and about those who suffer from it are often negative and/or incorrect. Being subject to those perceptions comprises emotional and social baggage included in the “package deal” that comes with having a mental disability. This also applies to how we with mental illness might perceive ourselves. I would like to set straight some of these erroneous stereotypes and perceptions, in the hope that doing so will provide some relief to the readers. 

No one is to blame for the mental illness of a family member, acquaintance, or coworker. This neurobiological disease is not the result of something the mother or father did wrong, when they raised that person from birth, into childhood and to adulthood. While there are antiquated theories about the mother being to blame, there has never been evidence to support those theories. There is much evidence, however, to support the theory that some people are genetically predisposed to contracting a mental illness. The environmental factors that might contribute to a predisposed person getting such an illness are not yet understood. However, I think that many of those with mental illness may have received an accidental blow to the head during childhood. There are also those who suffered from childhood shyness and the lack of social skills. This initial social deficit can “snowball” to the person becoming a scapegoat and receiving various levels of abuse perpetrated by one’s peers. This, in turn can lead to isolation and alienation, both of which might contribute to these illnesses. 

Blaming oneself for one’s illness, blaming either or both parents, or blaming anyone, is destructive and serves no purpose. My parents, for example, did a great job of raising me, and both of them set good examples of how to be a good person. However, I became mentally ill just the same. I also know that I didn’t cause my own illness. Most of the time when someone gets blamed for a person’s mental condition, you’re pinning guilt on an innocent person, including yourself. 

An exception to what I have said in the above two paragraphs is that some cases of depression can be linked to a history of trauma. People who are abused as children may not grow up to be bipolar or schizophrenic but may have other problems. 

Your mental illness needn’t cause you to be ashamed. It doesn’t make you a sick or morally depraved person. It doesn’t make you weak-willed, and it doesn’t make you a “defective” person. It is simply a medical condition, and is unrelated to who you are as a human being. You didn’t manufacture your brain, your genes, or the environmental factors that combined to create this medical condition. It ought to be no more shameful to have a psychiatric illness than having diabetes or hypothyroidism. 

t persons who mock or ridicule persons with a mental illness. It is important to maintain a thick skin against these people, as you would against anyone who expresses a bigoted attitude. The disdain for persons with mental illness is bigotry, no more, no less. 

A mental illness doesn’t mean that life is hopeless. It impacts numerous aspects of living as do all disabilities. Any disability requires adaptation. By managing the condition with diligence, it becomes possible to do many of the things you want to do in life. 

I find it hard to understand that people who have sustained a physical brain injury, including a stroke, or a head injury, in which part of the brain is physically removed, often seem to function better in life compared to someone with mental illness, whose brain is physically intact. The difference may be to some extent that those with mental illness go through much more indoctrination to convince them that they can’t do anything. On the other hand, those who have a physical brain injury are encouraged to do as well as they can. 

The people who espouse the idea that mental illnesses are physical diseases, especially many mental health practitioners, are sometimes the same people who treat a person with mental illness as less than an adult who can think. This is hypocrisy. The continuous presumption by people that we are incapable eventually leaks into our self view, or we become angry over it. 

The anger is preferable, if properly managed. Such a “chip on the shoulder” can be channeled into good deeds that prove wrong those who believe we can’t accomplish something in life. 

As always, your comments and stories are welcome. I can be reached at: or c/o the Planet.