Smothering the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder

“Those ‘lithium psychos’ look at me with those eyes! Those eyes!” This is a quote from a former partner of mine regarding patients with bipolar disorder who take lithium.

The sad thing was I shook my head in agreement, even though my dad was a lithium patient at the time. I was no fan of psychiatric patients, either.

Due to cosmic irony, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005. When my dad got sick a few years before, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, so I had a new perspective on patients with mental illness. The patients were now peers of mine; we had common ground in that our brains were sick. It was that simple.

Once again, my illness gave me some insight into those under my care. I am now a lot more empathetic toward patients with mental illness. When a patient comes in for a psychiatric medication for the first time, he or she is usually apprehensive or shy about it. If patients have questions—and they usually do—one of the first things I do is share my story to help them feel at ease. When they discover they are not alone, it is a tremendous icebreaker.

Sometimes, my practice goes beyond dispensing. I have used my testimony to help patients realize that they can get out of the hole and become productive members of society once again. I never offer advice, because that is a counselor’s job; I just share what has worked for me.

I believe that the stigma of mental illness in society has decreased, but it has far from vanished. I don’t know a lot of pharmacists who say so, but I would be willing to bet that some still see the “lithium psychos” as a nuisance. Supposedly, there are mental health parity laws, but I don’t believe they are always are enforced.

While private insurance cannot legally limit the amount of psychological services you can receive in a lifetime, they are one of the first things to be cut from a government budget. Patients in dire need of treatment are falling through the cracks. For every psychiatric patient who makes the news, there are thousands who suffer in silence.

Silence, however, is not my style. I will do everything I can to make mental illness a kitchen table topic. Informing those who surround you is important, because if something is a little off in you, then they can spot it and douse a highly flammable situation.

You cannot feel truly healed unless you acknowledge what is wrong and get comfortable with it. From there, it gets much easier to cope and recuperate. After all, we’re only human.

Jay Sochoka, RPh is the author of Fatman in Recovery: Tales from the Brink of Obesity.