Writing Away the Stigma—The workshop, the rewards, and the cost

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Lee Gutkind

writingawaystigmaOne in four American adults will endure the trials of a mental health condition this year, and more than half will experience one in their lifetime. Yet the stigma of mental illness remains, leading many to face their difficulties in shame and silence. In this collection, ten writers confront the stigma of mental illness head-on, bravely telling stories of devastating depressions, persistent traumas, overwhelming compulsions, and more.

I believe in stories—true stories. And I believe that true stories, told well—the genre known as creative nonfiction—can precipitate action and change. This, after all, is why writers write. We want our work to make a difference, despite the cost.

Despite the cost?

These days, Americans are talking more about the challenges of mental illness. We are not doing much about it as a nation, as of yet, but we are talking—giving it lip service—and that’s a step forward. But the stigma remains prevalent.

What is stigma? I think most of us don’t know what a powerful word it is, how damning and threatening it is. Look it up! Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace, shame, dishonor, and humiliation.

Can this be true? Are we disgraceful because we suffer from mental illness? Should we be—do we deserve to be—dishonored? Hardly. Like those who suffer from cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, for example, we do not choose to be diagnosed with mental illness. As they say, you have to learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt.

Which brings me back to the cost. What will it cost—in reputation, income, professional advancement, friendships—the ten brave writers who have come out to tell their stories of mental illness in this collection? Maybe—hopefully—nothing. But they’ve put themselves on the line, purposely making themselves and their friends and their families vulnerable for the sake of others who don’t yet know how to tell their stories, or who are simply too fearful to do so because of the possible consequences.

By the way, twelve people were initially accepted into the Writing Away the Stigma workshop from which these essays came about, twelve people who committed to telling their stories no matter the consequence. And yet, two of the twelve writers backed out: one at the conclusion of the workshop, and another quite recently, right before this book went into production. Writing away the stigma is a daunting thing to do.

There were eighty-one applicants to the Writing Away the Stigma workshop, a series of five three-hour, once-a-week classes open to residents of a ten-county area in southwestern Pennsylvania. The goal in the end was to write a true story, a creative nonfiction essay, about mental illness—their own, or that of a friend or family member.

I taught the workshops, which were offered free of charge due to the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation. We had a public reading a few months after the class ended, and the turnout was amazing: one hundred people from all over the area attended to see the participants stand in front of a microphone, identify themselves, and read excerpts of their work. It was a dramatic and powerful experience—a magic moment of creativity and trust when these survivors and supporters shared their lives with so many strangers.

True stories are powerful persuaders. The more stories told by the voices in the crowd—by the one in four people who will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness this year—the more legislators will listen (and perhaps one day take action); the more employers will open up their hiring parameters; the more Big Pharma will be pressured to lower the outlandish prices of their products; and the more even the experts, the MDs, PhDs, and MSWs, will learn to work together and support one another toward a common goal.

The Writing Away the Stigma workshop and this book are a call to action for those who have suffered in silence to speak out. Now is the time to tell your vivid and unforgettable true stories to anyone who will listen. We must raise a deafening chorus that will be heard throughout the country, striking a chord, compelling action, and eventually forcing a shift toward understanding and appreciation of the challenges presented by mental illness. We must write away the stigma, tell our true stories, until the stigma no longer exists.

Lee Gutkind and the authors of the ten essays in his book have graciously given their consent for their words to be shared on the Children's Mental Health Network website. We will share their writings over the next few months. Enjoy!

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leeLee Gutkind is the author or editor of numerous books about the medical and mental health communities, including Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation; Stuck in Time: The Tragedy of Childhood Mental Illness; One Children’s Place: Inside a Children’s Hospital, Writing Away the Stigma: Ten Courageous Writers Tell True Stories About Depression, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, OCD.  His essays about mental illness and related issues have appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. He is the founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine and the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. Lee Gutkind is a member of the Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council.


  1. George Patrin's avatar
    George Patrin
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    This work is so needed, a forum for stories to be told, breaking through the stigma and silence. In the end we must recall what we call stigma is actually discrimination. It should be illegal, and those who perpetuate it should be held responsible. It is sad that once these true stories are spoken, no one steps forward and says, "I'm sorry. I was in a position of authority and responsibility and I didn't react appropriately or do my job." We must change societal rules and policies to own up to past inadequacies and vow to act differently tomorrow in hopes there will be fewer stories to read in the future.
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