He plead with his community not to use “that phrase.”
No father wants to open about their child’s biggest struggle, but when Ed Shoener lost his daughter to suicide, he used the opportunity to educate his community about mental illness — in the form of a moving obituary.
Katie suffered from bipolar disorder for her entire young adult life, fluctuating through periods of both notable happiness and intense depression. It was during one of these bouts of depression that she took her life on August 3.
But her father did not want his daughter’s short life to be defined by her disorder.
“So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness,” he wrote in her obituary, published in the local Scranton Times-Tribune. “People say that ‘she is bipolar’ or ‘he is schizophrenic.’ Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar — she had an illness called bipolar disorder — Katie herself was a beautiful child of God.”
Shoener told The Washington Post that when Katie was first diagnosed, the residents of their small town didn’t know how to handle it. Instead of seeing her illness as it was — an affliction beyond her control — many viewed it as a character flaw. Shoener said the stigma hurt his daughter even further.
“In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further,” he wrote in her obituary.
Thankfully, Katie’s friends seem to have taken this message to heart. The Washington Post reports they are coordinating a 5k run on Halloween in her honor, with the tagline, “Wear a costume, but don’t mask mental illness.”
Unfortunately, many of the approximately 5 million people suffering from bipolar disorder still feel the need to hide their illness. Despite improvements in public understanding, studies show that much of the population still holds a negative view of those with mental illnesses.
These prejudices can lead to self-stigmatization, which prevents those with mental illnesses from speaking up and seeking help. The problem is especially pronounced in communities of color, where trust of the health care system is low while stigma is high.
Campaigns like The Secret Illness and People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project have sprung up in recent years to combat this stigma. These efforts work by humanizing those who suffer from mental illness — much like Shoener’s letter did for his daughter.
Hopefully these efforts will result in more people seeing those suffering from mental illness as who they are, not the disease that plagues them.