Jennifer Wentworth has lived with a mental condition since her teenage years. Her condition went untreated and undiagnosed for years — until she attempted to take her own life at 21 years old.
“My bipolar disorder was really unmanageable and uncontrolled, and it was really a matter of time until I ended up in the hospital,” Wentworth said. “I struggled through my teenage years and then I was sent to the hospital because of a suicide attempt, being in the deepest, darkest depression of the bipolar.”
Wentworth didn’t get any treatment until adulthood because her parents were not educated about mental conditions. Considering the portrayal of mental conditions on television and movies to be accurate, her parents were misguided by certain stigmas, Wentworth said.
“I was not hospitalized mostly because I was supervised by my parents, and they wouldn’t have that, so they sent me off to boarding school, they sent me to L.A., they sent me to behavior modification school,” Wentworth said. “They pretty much sent me everywhere out of the house to try to have people deal with the episodes and they really didn’t know what was going on.”
One in 4 Americans have a mental condition, and 1 in 17 Americans have a severe mental condition, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Despite the widespread nature of mental conditions, Wentworth thinks the prevalence of stigma is rooted in fear — both in the public and in individuals with mental conditions.
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” Wentworth said. “You’d be surprised how many people are actually diagnosed with mental illnesses. They just don’t come out with it — whether it’s a mild form or it’s a really severe form.”
Wentworth has been misdiagnosed several times — ranging from depression, to borderline personality disorder, to disorganized schizophrenia. Now, at the age of 30, Wentworth feels she has been correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I within the last six months.
Although her parents ostracized her from the family, she found meaning as an advocate for resisting stigmas and supporting others with mental conditions.
“I was thinking of writing a book about my life and my experiences with [bipolar disorder type I],” Wentworth said, “but, my family’s like, ‘Don’t write our name. Don’t say our name. Don’t mention it.’ It’s just out of, ‘I don’t want to be associated with that.’”
Wentworth took the stage in hopes of sharing her story, struggles and successes. Despite her parents’ disapproval, she works toward debunking misconceptions of mental conditions through being a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) peer speaker.
“I’m at the point now where I don’t care. I don’t care. I want to help other people with this,” Wentworth said. “I get uncomfortable sometimes with stigma, but I try to charge past that because it’s for the greater good, you know? I want other people to know it’s okay.”
Some commonly held stereotypes are that individuals with mental conditions are violent, unpredictable, untreatable and weak, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). However, SAMHSA thinks it is important to learn the facts and to treat individuals who have mental conditions with respect and dignity.
Stigma, or a mark of disgrace associated with a circumstance, person or quality, has traditionally been intertwined with mental conditions. As the fourth highest barrier to seeking treatment, individuals often shy away from treatment or from speaking about their mental health because of stigma, according to the Journal of Psychological Medicine.
Dr. Helen S. Nunberg has practiced psychiatry for 36 years. Dr. Nunberg currently works out of her office in Monterey Bay Mind & Body Medicine in downtown Santa Cruz. Dr. Nunberg said when treatment works for people, it can improve their lives.
“Their functionality can improve. Their ability to stay employed. Their ability to stay in relationships. All of that. Their ability to stay in school and graduate,” Dr. Nunberg said. “When they seek help, rather than self-medicate or just not get any help, there’s a potential for them to get better.”
Though the cost of treatment and the failure to recognize symptoms can deter individuals from seeking treatment, Dr. Nunberg said labeling was also a concern. When people are part of a stigmatized group, it affects their self-esteem, Dr. Nunberg said. One of the solutions to this problem would be to help resist and break down the stigmas surrounding mental conditions.
“When a stigma is broken, their own self-esteem is improved and that’s important. They’re more comfortable in their own skin and they see things [with] themselves more clearly,” Dr. Nunberg said.
Organizations like Community Connection and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) work to destigmatize mental conditions and empower its members — including patients, family and friends. Whether individuals are seeking treatment or are already in treatment, both organizations provide them with mental health resources and methods to manage stigmas.
Founded in 1978, Community Connection is a non-profit mental health program focusing on volunteerism, pre-employment, employment and education. If an individual needs guidance to get through college, wants to find a place to live independently or wants to get a job, there’s a program to aid them in their goals.
The program seeks to help individuals with mental conditions participate in community integrating activities and achieve greater independence, said programs director Laurel Hillerson-Spear.
“The issue of mental health has tremendous stigma around it. It’s not talked about often, and what we try to do is help individuals with psychiatric disabilities go out in the community,” Hillerson-Spear said. “[Members are] supporting our local businesses and non-profits and then in turn, demystifying the myth that adults with psychiatric disabilities cannot be productive members of society.”
Community Connection operates with the idea that people have greater mental and physical health when they are involved in the community, Hillerson-Spear said.
“Studies show people who are volunteering or working have improved well-being and improved mental health. There’s more meaning in their life and they feel more empowered,” Hillerson-Spear said. “There is a tremendous amount of self-worth that comes along with being part of the community and accomplishing things through work, volunteerism or education.”
Jennifer Wentworth, NAMI peer speaker and Community Connection member, said Community Connection helped her tremendously through her ongoing nine-year journey of stabilization.
“They helped me gain the confidence and the skills to try to manage coping with my symptoms as best I could,” Wentworth said. “They’ve helped me gain that confidence to be sharing my story. I’m very accepted there. I gained so many friends and support networks.”
Although Wentworth said she used to internalize certain stigmas and was afraid to speak out about her mental condition, she feels like she has come a long way. However, when she speaks to audiences, she is honest about her mental condition and how it affects her.
“The greatest thing is I’m real when I talk to them. Often I was in the hospital a week or two before, and then I’m at UCSC and saying, ‘Look, guys. I’m not at 100 percent here. I was just in the hospital. I was just in a major manic and I’m coming down, or I was just super depressed and I was suicidal a month ago.’ I’m just real,” Wentworth said. “I don’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’m so great and I’m talking in front of all these people.’”
Wentworth encourages individuals with mental conditions to seek treatment. She acknowledges it takes courage, but she said it’s worth it.
“It’s easier said than done, but don’t be ashamed to have a mental illness,” Wentworth said. “It’s nothing you did wrong. It’s not a lack of faith. It’s not a lack of character. It’s not a personality flaw.”