By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP
Everybody has multiple identities whether or not they’re living with mental illness. Among those most important to me: I am a kind-hearted person, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a volunteer, an entrepreneur, a Portuguese-Canadian-American, a Catholic, an Ivy League graduate, and I happen to be a person living with mental illness.
All of this and much more is me. I am proud of all of me. The many aspects of my identity greatly enhance who I am. They give me multiple sources of strength to draw on which help me cope with the challenges of mental illness.
In order for our identities to promote mental health, we have to let ourselves be empowered by them. In particular, a person’s identities can enhance their sense of belonging because they can allow membership and connection with multiple communities. This can be particularly helpful to mental health.
I live my life, day-by-day, with the goal of spreading kindnessand see it as a large part of my identity. Performing acts of kindness makes me extremely happy. It’s sometimes known as the helper’s high and shows the positive impacts of helping others. I am very fortunate that I am able to intertwine my volunteer and work activities, which brings me immense pleasure that also triggers a helper’s high. The “volunteer-nature” of much of my work compensates me in ways far beyond economic gain.
I was born and raised Catholic. My religious beliefs and practices have provided very effective coping strategies for me, such as meditation in the form of prayer. There are many potentialmental health benefits of religion and spirituality. These include gaining a framework for understanding the meaning of life and inclusion in a faith community.
I am Portuguese-Canadian-American. I love the “small village life” in Portugal’s rural communities. I love that in Canada medical care is accessible to all. I love America’s dogged determination to overcome any challenge. This “ethnic pride” protects my mental health. I celebrate all of my ethnicities, cultures and traditions, because I can be all three. This is a source of both emotional strength and protection.
I proudly consider having a mental illness as one of my identities. There is no community that I could possibly be prouder of. My recovery journey is the greatest challenge of my life. It tested me, it brought out my courage and strength, my resilience. It made me more empathetic and compassionate.
“We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health.” Lacking a sense of belonging can lead to depression, anxiety and suicide. One study of people living with schizophrenia found that a sense of belonging was vital, yet they more frequently felt isolated and/or like they didn’t belong. Even the smallest social belonging interventions can yield lasting positive effects.
Unfortunately, stigma prevents many people from viewing themselves fully to recognize their belonging and sources of strength from multiple identities. In many cases, when a person develops a mental illness, their diminished self-worth and self-stigma leads them to only identify as a person living with mental illness.
Families often reinforce this belief by focusing on a person’s mental illness as their primary reason for engagement. Society reinforces the concept as well with damaging stereotypes. Stigma can also make it impossible to realize the basic, most important identities we develop through our interactions with others — to be accepted, to belong and to contribute. Therefore, due to stigma, a person living with mental illness may be regarded to hold a “socially devalued role,” which can make it extremely difficult to reach recovery.
By ignoring a person’s multiple identities, this narrow-minded view ignores a person’s many sources of strength and value. It ignores the social roles that give a person meaning and purpose.
The social role valorization (SRV) model seeks to make it easier for socially devalued people to obtain the “good things in life,” such as family and friends, community and work, among many others. The SRV model helps place socially devalued people into a role of social value by using“culturally valued means to enable, establish, enhance, maintain, and/or defend valued social roles for people at value risk.” The Keys to a Good Life Handbook provides a good overview.
I will not let people define me by my mental illness alone. I’ll proudly and adamantly assert that my mental illness is a part of who I am, an important part. Our mental illness community needs a whole lot more pride, self-esteem and self-worth. We need to love ourselves and accept the love of others, because we deserve it.
In the end, it is of course up to each person to decide how to identify themselves. But many parts of our identities can be sources of untapped strength that can help us cope with the challenges of living with mental illness.
Our society has to focus more on our similarities than our differences. While it may be our differences that make us unique, it is our similarities that are more likely to bring us together.
Author’s note: I hope that all people living with mental illness will come to realize, if they haven’t already, the invaluable contribution our mental illness identity makes to who we are. Sadly, it took me too long to do so. Embracing my mental illness identity allowed me to more easily and quickly reach recovery and stay in it. My hope is that the examples of people proudly living with mental illness will inspire you to be proud of all of you. I hope you will join others like me – there are many. Nobody should be ashamed of who they are.
Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City.
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