Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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The Stigma Of Mental Illness And The Power Of Words

In my early 20s, I was in a relationship that ended with my significant other in a psychiatric facility. The relationship, albeit brief, was fraught with dishonesty that put me in danger. Because of the ways in which I suffered, and the imagined possibilities given his behavior, it has taken me a while to reconcile; years, actually. And as a budding mental health professional, activist for the disenfranchised, and a writer, I have to admit something: I forgot the power of my words.

I am a writer. I’ve always written to express myself. When I was a young child and unable to tell my parents what I was feeling, they encouraged me to write a story about it. It was by reading the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of one of my favorite books that I came to truly feel how deeply unhappy I was in my first marriage. It was through the writing of my undergraduate research thesis that I learned I had to leave that marriage in order to find happiness. I even wrote my way out of depression after my mother died. How could I ever discount the power of words? How could I be so careless with a force that has been the guiding power throughout my life?

The relationship, that ended in the psychiatric hospital, did not end because he was admitted. This was the  first relationship after my divorce, perhaps it was doomed from the start. I didn’t see the warning signs until I was completely enmeshed in the web his mental illness had woven. It had actually officially ended weeks before his admission, yet I was the only person he knew in our city, and I had remained his emergency contact. So there I was, being cleared by security for visiting hours to see a man I knew had cheated on me, who had lied about his intentions, who had concocted elaborate stories to woo me.

After the visit I began calling my close friends to fill them in on the situation, and I noticed that most every friend offered humor as a means to coping with the terrifying situation. A failed marriage followed by a relationship that ended in a psych ward was ripe for dark comedy. There were jokes about padded walls, straight jackets, and allusions to Jack Nicholson and The Chief. Words, words bandied about to make me laugh, to take away the power this relationship held over me. In the years since that time, it’s made for a great bar story. “You think that’s bad? The last time I saw one of my exes, he wasn’t allowed to have a belt, or even a plastic knife in the mess hall.” It seemed that every time I owned the tale, its impact would diminish  and my agency would grow. Each horrified gasp I evoked from a new friend validated that I was not the problem, that he was “just crazy,” that I could tell the story in my words, and have some control over a very out of control situation.

A couple of years ago, I began to seriously consider pursuing social work as a career again. Now that I am in an MSW program and actively reading, writing, and advocating for the rights of those with mental illness, I have began to realize that for some time I have also been
part of the problem. I’ve been talking out of both sides of my mouth; the champion and the oppressor.

A hypocrite even. Ouch.

My ex was, at times, a wonderful human being. Something attracted me to him initially after all. How much of that was crafted to manipulate me, I’ll never know, but I suspect there were genuine moments. As for the rest, no matter how it hurt me, it was a disease. If he had cancer, I would have been affected by his disease too. It would likely occur in similar ways: stress, sadness, anger, and confusion, but I would not have been mad at him. It’s taken me years to understand that mental illness is no different.

I am now publicly reclaiming words for good, words for healing, words for change, words for compassion, and words for advocacy. Perhaps I had not really forgotten the power of words, but was harnessing that power to get myself through the experience. Yet, that also worked to
further the stigma against people with mental illness. Our culture does this, throwing around the words “crazy,” “insane,” to mean either a behavior with which we do not agree, or to describe the unreal. For example: “That concert was crazy”. This mixing of meanings confuses our understanding of, and relationship to, those with mental illness. Hollywood produces films, like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, that fetishize the mentally ill and incorrectly portrays treatment regimens. Our media selectively reports on mental disorders, dedicating months to coverage of insanity pleas in such tragedies as the Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut shootings. Little ink is spilled discussing those who have successfully completed treatment and live productive lives, or to describe what a majority of those suffering from mental illness actually look like.

Central to our profession’s ethical code is the call to advocacy. I call on all social workers to challenge unbalanced media representation, to correct assumptions we overhear, and to think carefully before unsheathing our most powerful tool: the word.

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney
Guest Blogger

Mary-Margaret Sweeney is a graduate student in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work. She is still figuring out her path as a social worker, but social issues of interest to her are sexual health and education, women’s issues (equal pay, childcare, reproductive rights, and domestic violence specifically), gentrification, environmentalism (especially in the urban setting), and the politics of poverty. She is also a freelance writer of journalistic and creative non-fiction work. You can reach her at

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