Through the Eyes of a Stranger - Part 1

NEW YORK CITYVOICES: November/December 1997

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Editor's Note: From Michael Spennato's own experiences as a mental health consumer, he has identified three separate components of stigma. In Part One of this article, he writes eloquently of his own personal experiences with self-"stigmatization." In Part two, Spennato describes his experiences with "institutional" and "social" stigmas.


By Michael G. Spennato

Being diagnosed mentally ill does not mean that you have to be an outcast to yourself or society. Self-stigma is based on beliefs about ourselves as a result of influences of: 1) Society -childhood, family, friends, acquaintances values towards the mentally ill; 2) Institutional experiences, schooling, religious organizations, professionals and businesses attitudes about mental illness; 3) Media - television, newspaper, movies, etc. and their portrayal of the mentally ill population.

The identification I've made of self-stigma and its components are not based on books I've read, but rather on the life I've lived; I will begin with a brief history of my life and story. In 1989, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After years of private therapy, counseling and medication treatments, I was no further along toward recovery than when I started my downward spiral. In 1995, after five hospitalizations, a broken marriage, loss of income, an arrest and a failed suicide attempt, I finally found my spiritual self and began a road to recovery. This while in my sixth hospitalization in as many years. Finally, I was placed on medications that helped me. I was sent to live in an adult home where I would receive custodial care and begin a program with the SBPC's Bensonhurst Clinic.

As I became more involved with the clinic, I began to realize that I was stigmatizing myself due to my prior socialization. This had to change in order for me to recovery. By 1996, my complete diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia with anxiety disorder and major depression - what a mouthful!

Since I was "high functioning," I was asked to participate in a facilitator training program sponsored at the SBPC utilizing Ed Knight's Mental Health Empowerment Project. I loved it! My enthusiasm grew and I became a participant in the SBPC Worker Development Program as a Consumer Advocate Trainee. Under this program, a recipient of mental health services can earn a small fee for services rendered while still in treatment. The program is helpful in developing self-esteem and skills needed to return to the work force. My enthusiasm grew, so did my self-esteem, and I began to overcome my "stigmatization" of myself.

I took my medications regularly, went to several professional and consumer led groups, and began to develop as a leader. I now look back and realize that although many professionals tried to help me, I couldn't begin to achieve my goals, dreams and desires for the future until I saw myself through more positive eyes.

The direction my life took at this point was toward a mode of recovery and a desire to share what I had learned over these years with other who had similar experiences. Self-"stigmatization" is stigma in its most destructive form since it is directed from the self upon the self. To overcome this takes strong will and the support of other consumers, self-help groups, providers of mental health services, family, and a responsive system.

In a research article by Courtenay Harding published in 1996 she quotes a group of men who were sitting in rocking chairs on the front porches of Board and Care homes. When asked why they were not working they said, "Well, my family gave up on me; so I gave up on me." Self-stigma thus developed from years of demoralization. Clearly, this is a major hurdle to overcome if recovery is to begin on any level.


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