As I sat down for a Skype session with my longtime friend, who lives hundreds of miles away, I felt different than in our usual conversations of catching up. This time, instead of asking her about her week, I was going to ask her about her mental illness. With such a taboo topic on my mind, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous about the intimate questions I was going to ask her. Things started off well though, “There’s a lot I can say about what’s wrong with the lack of true information the public is given about mental illness,” says Lucy Florez, an advocate in the mental health community, and my longtime friend. Lucy runs a blog on mental health called, “This is the Face of Project,” which details personal stories of those who suffer from mental illness. Each story is written from the subject’s perspective, details their experience within the community, and the challenges they face in order to educate the public on these struggles.
Lucy and I have been friends since before her first diagnosis. “First, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, ADHD and depression,” she explains. Lucy began to feel the stress of applying to college, and ultimately ended up seeing a doctor who prescribed her medication for the last two years of high school. “Eventually I got to a point in my life where I was what I would have considered balanced, at that time.”
Ambitious and talented, Lucy tried her best not to let these diagnoses affect her in a negative way. She was accepted to her dream school: the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of the most prestigious film schools in the entire nation. “Pretty damn intimidating,” is how Lucy describes her cross-country move from Salt Lake City to Manhattan at the age of 18. After the move, being away from her friends and family began to take a toll on her. She was alone in a big, crowded city. “I went through times where I was so happy, I couldn’t contain myself. Other times I’d stay in bed for hours on end, until I got the energy to go to class and my internship.” These feelings worsened, and Lucy sought out help again. She noticed that she was having extreme mood swings, and that her current medications weren’t helping as they used to. After doing research and finding a therapist in the city, Lucy was diagnosed with Bipolar II. This is where her struggle with stigma really started to develop.
Bipolar is often stigmatized as unpredictable emotions, dramatic behavior, and the word has a context as one of the most severe forms of the illness. “So many changes were occurring,” she stated about the feelings that followed her new diagnosis. Most education surrounding bipolar disorder focuses on the extreme manifestations of the illness, according to Andrew Jasko, a Princeton scholar. The symptoms such as manic highs, extreme lows, and a rapid change from one emotion to the next, are often what lead to a pop-diagnosis of the illness. Those who fit into these broad criteria are more likely to be diagnosed, but those who tend to suffer from less extreme symptoms are often misdiagnosed; such is the case in Lucy’s experience.
“For some time, I thought the disorder defined me,” Lucy confessed. “For a while I felt as though no one would see me as Lucy anymore.” According to studies done by Gaziantep University, individuals feel stigmatized after diagnosis, even without explicit discrimination. One in three people with severe mental illness experience this sense of internalized stigmatization. This internalization can also be cemented by the actions of those we associate with. “I had friends who told me that I changed for the worst,” Lucy explained. She described how those who didn’t understand her mental illness would quickly judge her actions and treat her with disrespect. This was just another added struggle of trying to adjust to mood-stabilizers and learning how to deal with her emotions, as well as all the other feelings associated with becoming an adult.
Luckily, Lucy is a very determined person and did her best to escape the stigmas she was feeling. “I still feel like people define me by my disorder, but honestly, screw them.” With help from her therapist, Lucy began to feel more confident and take on an attitude that could help her fight against the stigmas she continuously faces. Discrimination against those with mental illness is something that does not get addressed in our society as much as it should. “Employers sometimes take it as just “depression” and give me less hours,” said Lucy when I asked her about her experience with discrimination. “After explaining to my boss why I had to switch shifts so often, he ended up giving me less opportunities to work.” Eventually, Lucy had to quit because her employer did not understand that she was fully capable of functioning in a normal work environment, but she would have some days that were harder than others.
This lack of education of the public, about what those who are suffering from mental illness are capable of, is detrimental to those affected. Lucy felt discouraged, and it took even more therapy and time to heal the wounds that her previous employer had reopened. Thankfully, Lucy did not give up after struggling with employment and job opportunities. “At my current job I have the most incredible boss I have ever had. She understands my disorder, but also pushes me to do what I feel I can’t do by myself.” When I asked Lucy her thoughts on education of the public on this topic, she answered: “It may take some time, but those who are educated are those who can change the way society defines those with mental illness.” She is currently working on a documentary about the struggles within the mental health community along with her blog, “This is the Face of Project”, and will continue to educate as much of the population as she personally can. “The media does not have the most correct information,” Lucy pointed out to me. With many people relying on the media for their information, we are left with a skewed version of the truth about mental illness.
At the end of our Skype conversation, I was convinced. By informing, educating, and advocating a voice for the mental health community, we can hope to bridge the gap between stigma and the truth. Media, such as Lucy’s blog and documentary, can be used as tools for educating. The more tools that are provided to society, the easier it will be to create a more accepting society where those who suffer from mental illness will not have to face such harsh, and misrepresented stigmas.