When depression or other forms of mental illness begin, we may feel sad, confused, and our mind is slowed with circular thinking.  If it’s the first time this has happened to us, we may not know what is occuring, nor what to do about it. Shame starts creeping in, and we begin to hide the bad feelings, only complicating the condition much more.

The Stigma of mental illiness keeps us there, alone in that dark place with our confounded and sad feelings.  Society has taught us to be strong and always put on a happy face. So with self-stigma and self-recrimination growing, we move slowly among our peers, hoping that they don’t notice that something is wrong with us.  
Stigma touches all age groups and lifestyles. Aging people especially can suffer from isolation and stigma. Returning military veterans are supposed to be strong. Adolescents may feel they aren’t good enough to fit in with peers. Parents who have a child with mental illness may not find those in the community or schools who can help.  LGBT communities often suffer from being marginalized. And employees so afflicted may worry about being fired from their jobs.

Speaking about the stigma of mental illness, one individual recently said, “The stigma of mental illness can be more destructive than the disease itself.”  Another said, “Stigma results in individuals denying their illness and refusing treatment or not seeking help.” They only spoke on terms of anonymity, thus confirming their struggle.

It does not have to be this way.  The first step is encouraging people to speak out when they have a mental illness, to understand that a brain disorder is just like any other physical illness and that good feelings will return.  Assisting them in seeking help is the second step.

The Naomi Ruth Cohen (NRC) Institute at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology is one organization that is working hard to provide that help by working to dispel the stigma of mental illness and promoting mental health. I have volunteered with NRC on their yearly mental health conference for the past 10 years, and am a past president of Mental Health America of the North Shore, based in Evanston.

This year’s NRC conference topic is “Understanding and Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness,” and takes place on June 7, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, 1224 Dempster St. NRC can be found at: nrcinstitute@thechicagoschool.edu. Conference keynote speaker Patrick Corrigan, Doctor of Psychology from the Illinois Institute of Technology, will discuss the impact of stigma on recovery and rehabilitation.  

Other speakers and session leaders will focus on how to address stigma in the workplace, how students and parents can find help and cope, how first responders can assist, what spirituality can offer, how a mentally ill individual can unravel thoughts of desperation, confusion and fear, and much more.

If you or someone you love has suffered from mental illness and stigma, please consider attending the NRC Conference. It will open amazing doors for you. It has made all the difference in my life and my family’s. There is no substitute for truth and openness in mental illness recovery.