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Women's Day: Fighting Stigma

By Bob Carolla, Director of Media Relations

In its May issue, Women's Day magazine has published personal essays by three women living with different medical conditions who have confronted stigma resulting from their illness. It is a significant article that will reach a broad, influential audience.

One essay, "I have bipolar disorder, and no, I'm not crazy," is by NAMI member Heidi Nordin of Minnesota. The others involve AIDS and lung cancer. In each case, public attitudes often wrongly blame the illness on "personal weakness or poor lifestyle or moral choices."

Misinformation also plays "a huge role."

A one point, Nordin writes, a family member told her: "You know, I don't think mental illness is real. I don't know why you bother taking medication."

In the case of lung cancer, most people automatically assume that smoking cigarettes is the cause-implying a lifestyle choice-even though 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women with the disease have never smoked.

Stigma can affect priorities for medical research. More than 160,000 people die from lung cancer each year, compared to 40,000 persons who die from breast cancer. Even though the incidence of lung cancer is four times greater, breast cancer receives over 50 percent more research dollars, according to the article.

"It's hard to see all the pink ribbons for breast cancer while lung cancer is fairly invisible," writes Kathleen Skambis of Florida, who notes that even if a person does smoke "no one deserves cancer."

In the essay "I'm smart, I'm straight and I have AIDS," Rae Lewis-Thornton of Illinois recounts how she was diagnosed with HIV at age 23 during what she thought was a monogamous heterosexual relationship. Nonetheless, a television reporter once insisted on knowing how many men she had slept with.

"All it takes is one," she said.

"Keeping my condition a secret was isolating and I got very depressed," she said. Over time, she has come to believe that "God has given me a unique gift to speak about my illness."

Since becoming involved with NAMI in 2005, Nordin also has become more open about her illness, speaking in public, helping out with NAMIWalks and serving on the state's mental health advisory council. Publication of her essay in Women's Day is an act of even greater courage-disclosing her experience to the magazine's approximately four million readers nationwide. NAMI encourages its own readers to share it with friends.

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