The Importance of Community
Being part of something is empowering; being separate can be crippling.
Last month, I wrote about the launch of my audiobook, a story for which the brilliant Raúl Esparza provides narration. Raúl is a celebrated stage actor, well known on Broadway. He’s also an audience favorite on the long-running TV show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, where he plays a tough, calculating district attorney.
When selecting him for the audiobook, I knew that he was a talented performer with Cuban American heritage. I failed to realize, however, the size of his fan base—and their loyalty.
“At least you're not alone, your friends are there, too." -- Tick Tick Boom
I was amazed by how quickly Raúl’s fans embraced the audiobook. A few influencers retweeted my message, and soon dozens of people were commenting. I had promised to give away free copies on a first-come, first-served basis; all were claimed within ten minutes. The positive support was incredible. Suddenly, I felt connected; I felt part of something.
Being part of a community is powerful; we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. Early on, we recognize the importance of a group—learning, sharing, laughing—and it’s only reinforced as we mature. Many of us have happy memories of participating on teams or in other clubs in school. Typically, these experiences improve our self-esteem and build our confidence. As we mature, the groups might change, but the positive effects still accrue. I certainly felt appreciated when Raúl’s fans welcomed me so quickly and easily.
But then I thought about mental illness, and the way that society ostracizes those who suffer. It’s such a tragic result of the stigma—take someone who already feels alone, anxious, or afraid and convert those apprehensions into reality. We humans are social animals, something which the pandemic has proven so effectively. No one wants to be isolated.
“Stick to your own kind." -- West Side Story
Yet this is typically the punishment we dole out to those suffering from brain illness. We separate them, making sure they know through our words and behavior that they are not part of the group. Ashley L. Peterson summarizes this in her book A Brief History of Stigma, suggesting that we mark them as Other. If the sick people are over there, and I’m over here, that means I am not sick.
Hiding behind the Other label, we allow ourselves to treat them differently. It’s akin to so many of the stereotypes prevalent in our society today, be they racial, religious, or political. The Other become less than human, allowing prejudice and bias to follow. For example, one of the most damaging misconceptions is that mental illness leads to violence. Therefore, we justify our discrimination as an act of self-preservation. We can’t possibly allow someone who has a history of mental illness to practice medicine—what if instead of healing they end up hurting?
This only reinforces the stigma, making it all the more difficult to undo. If you believe you’ll be viewed differently for seeking help, you’ll go to great lengths to keep from doing so, even when you desperately need it. And that’s a huge problem, because the earlier mental illness can be addressed and treated the better the outcome. As a society, we need to flip the script—those dealing with a mental illness should expect to be pulled in and embraced rather than pushed out.
“I used to live alone before I knew ya." -- Leonard Cohen
Because the reality is that if you or a loved one suffer from mental illness, and you seek help, you will be amazed by the reception. I spoke about this with Congressman Patrick Kennedy—both of us were surprised by the outpouring of support that came after we shared our secrets. At an individual level, most people will show sincere support and compassion, I can promise you that.
Together, we can end the stigma. We can keep from separating those who suffer and make sure that everyone feels part of the community, regardless of illness or history of mental health symptoms. As Patrick so eloquently stated when being interviewed by Piers Morgan several years ago:
"We need to change the dialogue and open our arms and our hearts to all around us because, as I said, it's every single family in America."