Many Times Mental Illness Can Carry Stigma


If meeting 54-year-old Rita Dinquel in public, you likely would see her as confident, intelligent, and articulate. She would look “normal.” Yet doctors over the years have diagnosed her with major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder, conditions significantly impairing her ability to function.

“When people find out I’m on disability, they say I don’t look sick,” said Dinquel in a telephone interview. “Personally, it’s taken me a long time to come to grips that I have an illness and not a character fault.”

Dinquel began experiencing depressive episodes at age 18, but started self-injuring (cutting her body) when she was 14. Beginning in 1978, she has been hospitalized 12 times for depression. Her other diagnosis, borderline personality disorder, has involved since early adulthood her lacking the ability in part to effectively self-regulate her emotions, relationships, thoughts, self-image, and behaviors.

She said, “While in a depression, I have inattention, inability to focus, sleeplessness, feelings of wanting to be alone, and feelings of extreme worthlessness. I have had suicidal thoughts and one suicide attempt.”

She worked as a paralegal for about 25 years. Early in her career, she said she “cut my arms in the morning and put on an expensive suit for work with my arms bleeding under the sleeves.” The depression had so deadened her emotions, she said, that the pain from cutting herself made her feel alive. (She no longer cuts.)

In 2002, after submitting a four-inch stack of paperwork detailing her lifelong struggles, she applied for disability benefits and was accepted on her first try. “When I got my award letter, I sobbed, and thought I was really sick and didn’t just have a character flaw,” said Dinquel.

Her experiences with depressive bouts and hospitalizations have greatly contributed to the breaking up of her marriages and to employers firing her. Though no longer paid for working, she does participate in some volunteer activities.

“There is a stigma that comes with having (a mental) illness,” said Dinquel. “It’s taken me a long time to realize I have one. I have periods when I can’t function no matter how much I know what to do. But I do know how to take care of myself. I know how to ask for help.” She strongly advised people diagnosed with depression to stay in therapy.

For more information on depression please see your doctor. You can find some depression information here.

Written by Daniel J Vance (republished with permission)
[All American Foods and Palmer Bus Service made this column possible.]

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  • Kyrie McColgan

    Thank you for sharing. I hope for you the best in good scientific care and thank you for your insight of the idea that maybe not looking sick can have a positive side as well. I have struggled with this.

  • Kyrie McColgan

    Thank you for your courage and voice misssrobin. I hope for you great peace.

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  • as i’ve mentioned i suffer also from bipolar depression. i have been prescribed meds, been hospitalized, have many suicide attempts. i feel there are times i’m always and will always be. i suffer from not wanting to be with people except a very good mentioned already. i made plans to see a movie, invited her (it’s free), she accepted, and now i don’t want to go. i’ll go because for one, i know it’s good for me, two,like i said i already invited her, got the tickets, and she accepted. as a matter of fact she’s already made the transportation plans. i have a big mouth huh?

    but one things i’ve thought of doing and that is of keeping a journal. oh no i just forgot the writer’s name above but she mentioned she keeps a journal. thank you. somehow that has encouraged me to do the same. actually though, honestly i really don’t know the purpose of it nor understand how it will actually help. but i must know something or else i wouldn’t be interested right? i guess. anyway, thank you so much!

  • It’s so hard for me when people ask how I am.  Physically I might be okay today, emotionally I’m awful.  Or awful on all fronts but I know no one really wants to hear it.  And I still struggle with feelings of self-worth when I can’t do anything productive.  But I write.  I write about my struggles hoping others will know they aren’t alone.  I also talk openly about depression, self-injury, and therapy.  I want to be a resource for others.  And it works.  People who are struggling often come to me because they are finally ready to tell their story and know I won’t judge them.

    Every story is important.  Thank you for sharing yours.

  • Dawn

    I really appreciate this article. As a person with multiple mental illnesses, I can understand the internal war to accept the various abbreviations as diseases instead of character flaws.

    I am 30 years old and I have been hospitalized due to my mental illnesses over 15 times. (I stopped counting since there really wasn’t a point to keeping track anymore.) I am on disability and live in public housing. I buy my food with assistance, go to school with financial aid, and occasionally I even make it into the office I’m supposed to work at before 10 am.

    I don’t look sick. Actually, I won’t look sick because my illnesses don’t show on the outside until I am so far gone that you aren’t seeing me in public at all. If I can function, you aren’t going to see the illness screaming at me inside my skull.

    I like it that way. Sometimes I can even get someone to listen to me about the stigma and the problem of mental illness if they don’t look at me and think, “patient.” Maybe not looking sick will do a little good in the end…

  • jean

    I have BPD, PTSD, anxiety, depression ….. But I am also supposedly highly functioning. My illness is invisible. So frustrating and tiring pretending to be well to make it easier for everyone else.

  • Kellee

    I have been fighting Disability for 3 years and finally was told i’d have a date within the next 4 months. It just amazes me how people that need it can’t get it. I’m am so discouaged. Paying into it for so many years and to be told no.

  • Sherrie

    I am a single mom of twins. I stayed in a marriage with a major depressive alcoholic for too many years before it ended in a violent episode and I had to ask him to leave. I am PTSD and ADHD with bouts of Chronic Depression after being sexually and mentally abused as a child and througout my teenage years. I do the very best I can to keep my nose above water and fought medication for years because of the stigma it carries still. It has helped quite a lot. There is so much mental illness in my family of origin that was swept under the rug and not talked about. Alcoholism to self medicate and Pot to self medicate so I just did not partake.
    I have distanced myself from my family but the biology followed me and is manifesting in my children. I am finally admitting that my son needs medication to cope and will keep a close eye on my daughter.
    I have been terrified to open myself to a romantic relationship due to the judgement that typically comes when they realize how patient they need to be to live in my world. The benefits are worth the sometime roller coaster ride though. My world is full of beauty and joy and depth and color. I think that mental illness is a gateway to a spiritual clarity that most people don’t experience. Creativity comes from that ability to think differently and the freedom to see things differently. I am happy to be in the company of Vincent Vangogh and many artists like him.
    I manage to keep a job and pay my mortgage but it is exhausting and I need to take extra care of myself by chosing what I can and cannot do. I need to say “no” and I need to say yes to myself a lot more. Sometimes it looks like I am selfish to those on the outside but here, in my world, the most important things are my kids, and me.
    All I can say to those of you who need to be on disability is whatever you are doing to make the world a more beautiful place with the talents you have is appreciated. If you can contributed, please do. If you cannot, then take care of yourself as best you are able and soon you will be able to contribute again. Peace to you and your families.

  • Cyndi

    Oh, but I don’t LOOK sick!

  • Cyndi

    16 years ago I was given dx of major depression and borderline personality. For many years I was given antidepressants. Two years ago I was diagnosed bipolar after a suicide attempt. My meds were changed and continue to change today. It’s a tough illness to deal with, then to stigmatize us!

    Improper meds have had long term effects…memory, ADD, coordination. Officially executive deficits and cognitive impairments per neuropsych testing. Permanent, irreversible per Ph.D tester. Social security approved me for disability benefits the day after applying!!!! The pathetic thing is my previous employer’s contract with the disability insurance co caps benefits to 2 yrs for ‘mental illness.’ It expires in 6 wks. Will be soc sec $ only then. I am an RN but will have to carefully look for a part-time, if any.

    I am a young 47 y/o. I live in a small town now. People look at me funny when they figure out I don’t work, am single and single parent and sometimes tell her/him I’m on ssd. I leave it at that, puzzled! Cuz of the stigma!

    At least bipolar illness usually gets approved first time by soc sec!?


    Good for you, opening up is so good not just for you but for others like me, who are so scared of what lies ahead of them. I know eventually I will need to file. Despite my husband, despite the good days that are far in between and so often faked.Thank you for sharing you have no idea how much it helps others.

  • Valuable blogging! Keep it up! Disability should not be so hard to get & people should not be dissuaded from trying to get it!