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Eight years after Brandon Ha was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the 33-year-old not only wrestled with his illness but struggled to keep it hidden from others. “I didn’t want to be called mentally ill. I didn’t want to tell my friends I had this diagnosis, I didn’t want to take my meds,” says Ha. The denial and secrecy only exacerbated his mental illness and he “hit rock bottom” in a San Jose, California jail after a four-month long psychosis riddled manic episode. The dire situation, however also marked a turning point and signaled a new outlook in facing his mental illness. Since the arrest Ha’s started treatment, sobered up and shared with nearly 8,000 followers his portraits of mental illness on the Break Yo Stigma Instagram account. Ha’s not the only advocate giving a face to mental illness. By posting portraits alongside homemade placards displaying their diagnoses, individuals are reframing various mental health disorders, ranging from anorexia to schizophrenia, as illnesses that require openness and education, rather than shame and stigma.

 

Eight years after Brandon Ha was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the 33-year-old not only wrestled with his illness but struggled to keep it hidden from others. “I didn’t want to be called mentally ill. I didn’t want to tell my friends I had this diagnosis, I didn’t want to take my meds,” says Ha. The denial and secrecy only exacerbated his mental illness and he “hit rock bottom” in a San Jose, California jail after a four-month long psychosis riddled manic episode. The dire situation, however also marked a turning point and signaled a new outlook in facing his mental illness.

 

Facing a Stigma

How Social Media is Changing Conversations about Mental Health

by Maya Dangerfield | @dngrdangerfield May 15, 2015


Eight years after Brandon Ha was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the 33-year-old not only wrestled with his illness but struggled to keep it hidden from others.

“I didn’t want to be called mentally ill. I didn’t want to tell my friends I had this diagnosis, I didn’t want to take my meds,” says Ha.

The denial and secrecy only exacerbated his mental illness and he “hit rock bottom” in a San Jose, California jail after a four-month long psychosis riddled manic episode. The dire situation, however also marked a turning point and signaled a new outlook in facing his mental illness.

Since the arrest Ha’s started treatment, sobered up and shared with nearly 8,000 followers his portraits of mental illness on the Break Yo Stigma Instagram account. Ha’s not the only advocate giving a face to mental illness. By posting portraits alongside homemade placards displaying their diagnoses, individuals are reframing various mental health disorders, ranging from anorexia to schizophrenia, as illnesses that require openness and education, rather than shame and stigma.

Giving a face to stigmatized mental illnesses serves a dual purpose for individuals who share on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter—it’s a way to publically negotiate their identify with their diagnosis, while providing a platform to raise awareness within their community about mental illness.Jeremy Medlock, 26, didn’t immediately share his diagnosis with Borderline Personality Disorder with friends and family; instead, he employed a litany of excuses and over-ups, a coping method he called “exhausting.”

“I was ashamed to talk about it, and I realized that me acting like that made other people think that it was something they shouldn’t talk about,” said Medlock who runs Out of the Box Project.

“The stigma started in me and when I started to share, it took away a huge power that [my diagnosis] had on me.”

Those with mental illnesses face a double challenge of finding treatment, while negotiating everyday prejudices that surround those diagnosed with mental illnesses, according to a 2002 study by the University of Chicago. Advocates like Dior Vargas, 27, who share online recognize the competing interests of mental health advocacy and future stigmatization.

“It’s a constant struggle about how honest am I going to be without hurting the people that I love,’ said Vargas who has Major Depressive Disorder and runs the People of Color Mental Illness Project. “But, I can’t be true to my story—if that’s the case, what’s the point?”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one in four adults experience mental illness within a given year while one. While legislation like the American with Disabilities Act provides discrimination protection for those with mental illness, informal and everyday stigmatization still occurs.

Vargas understands the implications of sharing but notes that if potential employers “ have an issue with the work that I do,than I’m not supposed to work for them. I’m trying to make a difference.”

Ha agrees.

“No one dreams of saying ‘When I grow up, I want to have a mental illness’ or ‘Yep, you’re going to go into recovery and inspire people’” says Ha. “My goal now is to shorten [recovery] for others.”

Social media platforms are widely embraced by mental health advocates as a community-building tool for those with similar illnesses. A 2014 Dartmouth study found that individuals with highly stigmatized psychiatric illnesses used social media like YouTube, as a peer support network, sharing everything from medication recommendations to coping mechanisms.

A diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia confined Ash Xyle ,41, to his room for nearly a year. Forays into private Facebook groups for those with schizophrenia, helped his recovery. “I was hanging out, talking to people who didn’t need to explain anything, who already knew what happened to people who go through a diagnosis like mine,” said Xye.

Jessica Gimeno, who juggles bipolar disorder along with Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular autoimmune disease, notes that social media provides a trove of resources that didn’t exist in the past. “When I went to research bipolar disorder I went to the library,’ says Gimeno who blogs about dual disorders for Fashionably Ill. ‘For a lot of people who are depressed or have a bipolar disorder, they can barely get out of bed so the fact that Facebook and Twitter are at your fingertips, it’s a really great resource.”

The increased spread of personal mental health stories doesn’t automatically correspond to quality advice and can trigger relapses, warns Caroline Rothstein, a New York based writer and body empowerment advocate.

“In addition to inspiring people and letting them know they aren’t alone, people might share things even if they themselves aren’t better, and can be showing behaviors that are not helping themselves or the people around them,” says Rothstein.

While online communities are seen as an overwhelmingly positive activists like Ha hope their online awareness corresponds to real world acceptance. Ha, who volunteers at NAMI and speaks locally about mental health awareness, hopes to turn Break Yo Stigma into a non-profit organization.

“‘How amazing is it that people are able to declare on a poster, list their illness and be comfortable with it?’ Social hasn’t improved 100 percent, but it’s heading in the right direction.”

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About the City Mind Project

CityMind explores mental health in New York City. The articles produce reflect the mental health concerns of particular communities, explores access to quality care and delves into larger social issues concerning stigmatization. The stories are New York based but reflect the larger issues of mental health nationwide. We hope the project will serve both as a news source and a resource.

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