People With Mental Health Issues Explain Why You Should Treat Them With Dignity

As most people with mental illness will know, dignity is something they receive in far too short a supply, whether that's people making decisions for them or assumptions made about their mental faculties.

That's why this year, the focus of World Mental Health Day is around dignity - to help stamp out stigma.

To open up conversations surrounding mental health, we asked people what dignity means to them.

There's no dignity in depression. In days without showering and relentlessly crying for no reason at all. With loved ones there was no energy for embarrassment. I couldn't remember dignity.

Another time this situation would be mortifying but in the midst of darkness that doesn't quite come into it - you're too busy feeling sad and sorry and so full of shame as a person, that something like appearance feels far from thoughts.

You just feel not enough.

I thought I could preserve some dignity by keeping quiet but it just felt worse. I realised there can be dignity in honesty - in knowing and sharing, if you can, that this happened to you.

It doesn't need to be your shameful little secret. Dignity can be found again.

Not having abusive language referring to my mental illness in the media, for example, schizo, nutter, psycho and loony.

That’s what dignity means to me.

For me 'dignity' means others accepting me for who I am, and not being recognised solely for my mental illness.

I’m very open about my experiences with mental health, certainly to those around me but also on a public level. I write and blog about my recovery, and I stand up for what I believe is right, especially when it comes to breaking down mental health stigma.

Sometimes I worry that when meeting new people, or when undertaking professional work, that I will be treated differently due to my mental health.

Dignity to me is being treated as a human, I’ve said it many times and I will continue to say it: mental illness doesn’t make you any less human.

I want to be accepted for my talent, and my skill – not because of what I’ve been through. At times I feel like a burden to others, and that certainly hurts my dignity – I feel that’s a result of stigma.

If there wasn’t so much negative energy around the portrayal and acceptance of mental illness then I would feel more comfortable asking for help. In my personal opinion and experience stigma certainly affects my dignity.

I’m not saying physical health is any less important than mental health, but it is definitely treated differently – when I broke my arm as a child I must admit I thought it was cool, I was telling everyone, with mental health it’s different. I think there is still a lack of understanding, and at times, respect toward people with mental illness.

Dignity to me means being respected, understood and accepted.

Dignity, to me, means being treated in fairness just like anyone else would be despite whether I have a mental health condition or not. Like I am still worthy, just like anybody else is.

Dignity is about being thoughtful, caring and polite; but mostly being respected without the feeling of being degraded, or to degrade myself in any such manner without stooping low beneath myself.

My body is covered in physical scars, the result of self-harm. To live with those scars is, at first, a shameful experience; even though the cause of those scars is an illness that is crushing, it feels disgusting to bear them.

For me, dignity has been to be able to show my scars without shame because depression is an illness I am now consciously battling.

I no longer hide my scars because they actually provide a story I want to share with the world.

If my scars can help others find courage to battle the darkness then, to me, that is dignity for myself and the person I am helping.

Dignity, empathy and stigma are frequently associated words when it comes to mental illness. Often, when you mention that you have a mental illness, stereotype comes into play.

With an eating disorder, for example, people assume this means stick thin, on death's door and it's self inflicted.

Perhaps a self absorbed teenager who went on a diet gone wrong. Or that I chose to make this happen, and I just have to eat to get better. (If only it were that simple).

I recently read a harrowing account of a friend's experience on a section in a psychiatric ward, constantly watched night and day. Even when my eating disorder resulted in me being admitted as an inpatient, my parent's private medical insurance allowed me access to a well known private hospital where I was treated by exceptional professionals in a firm, but kind manner.

I have sadly read awful accounts of mental health nurses who are aggressive towards patients and simply do the job because it's a job. Empathy never formed part of the recruitment process, because the profession is desperate to hire. It makes sense, because it is probably one of the hardest jobs, but a lack of empathy reduces some of the most vulnerable people into a further pit of despair where their dignity can go no lower.

Even when you are being watched night and day, or are on a feeding tube, empathy is essential to aiding recovery, rather than forcing you further into the clutches of your illness.

Dignity and stigma are also aligned. I've constantly found myself battling against the media, myself and even the medical profession - telling them that my eating disorder was a mental illness, and I didn't need to be at death's door to require treatment.

I should require treatment when my weight was healthy, due to the mental instability I was displaying. I was out of control at varying points, emotionally and in my eating patterns.

Not knowing how to regulate my emotions made it hard to understand why work suddenly deteriorated, relationships failed and my social life went out the window. I blamed myself and that only made things worse.

I found in a previous job that one uneducated colleague was unable to distinguish between performance and illness contributory factors. At one point she even highlighted my illness wasn't a disability. Whilst she was proven wrong, my confidence was shattered and it has taken a long time to rebuild my self esteem.

Those with mental illnesses face daily battles, some more trivial than others - the other day I had an argument with a flatmate about cushions. It wasn't so much the cushions that bothered me, but the control issue. Last year I battled redundancy, bullying at work and housing challenges amongst other issues.

It is easy to lose face in this and, with a negative coping mechanism, very easy to fall into. Mental illnesses very quickly replace rational thinking forcing the sufferer to lose dignity which can be misinterpreted as incompetence, anger, emotional immaturity and much, much more.

Better understanding of mental illness is critical. We must think about the bigger picture to what empathy and understanding looks like when we have positive mental health.

It's usually not until I get into a more stable place that I can think and emote about what has happened when I have been acutely unwell.

Only then am I able to reflect on the people who treated me with dignity and the people that could have shown more.

I have always associated dignity, or lack therefore, with failure. Ever since I was young, I've had an all-encompassing fear of failure. Grey areas have never existed for me - either I have to be the best at something, or there is no point in me even attempting it.

This is something that is pretty common within bipolar disorder, and has become one of the defining features of my life. There are times when I am full of confidence, content in where my life is heading and the things that I am doing - but then, more often than not, there are times when I am filled with panic and frustration, certain that I will never accomplish anything.

I remember sitting in the car with my mother outside our house - she'd taken me to the doctor because I'd spent weeks wallowing in the same dark, ugly mood that refused to lift - trying to make her understand that the reason I felt so terrible was because I was 18 years old and had not accomplished anything.

I remember telling her that Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was eight years old, which is pretty strange to think back on because I grew up in a working class town and definitely did not listen to Mozart. She looked at me blankly and said: "But that's not normal. Most normal people don't do things like that".

I wanted to say, that's exactly it - I don't want to be normal, either. I don't want to be only adequate at everything, because my 'perfect' only just about lives up to someone else's 'good'.

This is, to me, what makes bipolar disorder so frustration and undignified.

This illness is completely at odds with itself, at one moment telling me that I will never achieve anything, that I have failed at the most basic of tasks; and then, at the next moment, filling me with bizarre and all-encompassing delusions of grandeur, delusions that make feel as though I should not be normal or average because I am worth so much more than that.

That is what makes me feel undignified - the constant contrast (and co-existence) of self-obsession and self-hatred that bipolar disorder instils in oneself.

I feel undignified telling people that I have a mental illness, in particular this mental illness, because something about the diagnosis 'bipolar' - manic depression - makes me sound unhinged, incapable, in constant turmoil with myself.

I feel ashamed that I cannot trust or even exert some kind of control over my own brain, at times.

I feel ashamed that simple terms such as 'gut instinct' do not apply to me, because this illness has ruined any fixed point of reference that I once had for myself.

I feel ashamed that, even during good periods, I am constantly thinking about my mental illness.

I feel ashamed that so much of my time and life is spent with having to handle this and be aware of warning signs and remembering to take my medication.

I feel ashamed because I spend so much energy on obsessing over myself and my mental health, whereas other people spend it on happy, positive relationships and other productive things.

I feel ashamed because this illness has both aged me and reduced me to a child again, in so many different ways.

Mostly, I feel ashamed because this illness will not let me accept failure, even though it is normal to fail. The worst thing is knowing, logically, that being mentally ill has not made me lose my dignity in any way.

I don't view other mentally ill people as undignified - I view them as mentally ill. Mental illnesses are unique in that they allow us to extend sympathy and respect and support to others but rarely, if ever, to ourselves.

Dignity is more than a song played at weddings. It is something personal that we should cherish and protect. It isn’t about conforming to expectations or being something you’re not. And it is more than just grace and grandeur, it is about respecting yourself and not compromising that for anyone.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we’ve all lost a little dignity, mine has been left on many pub floors over the years, soaked in vomit and tears. There will also be times when he will happily waive all understanding of dignity, usually when in hospital with legs akimbo, or getting a camera up an orifice you didn’t really want to show a nurse, but generally, dignity is something we control and use to protect our good name.

That "don’t cry, not here" feeling, the "don’t let the bastard see you like this" defiance, that little voice at the back of your head that says "maybe keep your pants on this time".

Dignity is your friend. It’s got your back. It is yours, no one else’s, which is what makes it so special. But you have to look out for each other.

There will be times when others try to take it, there will be times when you completely lose it, there will be times when you think it is gone forever, but it’s not. As long as you are around, your dignity will be too.

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