Fighting Stigma
through Art
From UpStage Stigma

UpStage Stigma is a community arts project with a mission to usurp the stigma of mental illness.  It is produced by a group that is committed to the idea that we are
all more human than otherwise. UpStage Stigma is dedicated to providing a humanizing space in which to explore the experience of mental illness.

Mental illness is an irreducible experience, one that resists simple explanations. Conceived as an illness it is made to be separate from a person, as though it
invades one’s mind as a common cold does our lungs and blood. Yet, the language of illness fails to describe the experiences of those who have accepted the
label, and the many others who avoid or reject it. It is a vocabulary that is as sprawling as it is wanting; chemical imbalances causing depressive episodes,
atypical antipsychotics prescribed to treat delusions of reference, gender dysphoria, schizophrenia and drapetomania, inexhaustible anxiety and
psychopharmacology. This language, that of mental illness, is marked with stigma. To speak and think these words can bring the crushing weight of shame and
oppression to bear on a person. This is precisely why those involved with UpStage Stigma have chosen to express themselves through art.

The stigma of mental illness is as mutable as mental illness itself, an invisible mark with terrible power.  It acts as a perversion of privilege, bringing shame and
undeserved consequences upon those who fit its profile. Stigma is a product of the forces of history, just as other forms of privilege and oppression, and thus exists
differently across cultures and communities.  

Sometimes the shame has focused on the labels of diagnosis and treatment, other forms have focused on the human differences that produce those labels. It is a
unique hallmark of stigma that it can bring shame upon someone rejecting treatment just as swiftly as it can someone accepting help.  

Stigma invariably alienates those who bear it from their families and friends, and forces suffering to be held privately and untended. The emotional weight of self-
stigma and internalized oppression prevents people from seeking work, relationships, political representation, and opportunity. All too common are the stories of
people who hide their pain from others or families that hide their loved ones from public, driven
by a sense of shame. Indeed, communities have, and continue to hide and exile people on the
basis of mental illness. Thus, stigma brings both an emotional pain that can alienate a person
from the part of themselves that is seen as ill, while also separating many from economic,
social, and political justice.

Last spring, UpStage Stigma took place for the first time and was a powerful display of the human
experience. Dancers, poets, authors, and singers took the stage as advocates, survivors,
consumers, and practitioners alike.  Those who performed used art to express the parts of
themselves that are stigmatized as mental illness. UpStage Stigma is a project born of a desire
to break the stigma that keeps us apart from one another, to make public the expressive words,
sounds, motions, and images that convey the experiences that so many keep private. We believe
that the first step in fostering appreciation for our shared human experiences, and empathy for
our differences, is to bring them to light. To disrupt stigma, to pursue mental health justice, the
stories of those who have lived through it must be given an audience. In this way, art and
storytelling are explicitly political acts.

This year UpStage Stigma will take place on the stage of the Majestic Theatre. The show, free to
the public, will give an even greater audience to the stories of mental illness and emotional
struggle that need to be heard. Poets and musicians, dancers and speakers, each will share
their experiences on their own terms, with their own art. The act of claiming one’s experiences
and the language with which it is told is a powerful act of self-determination that has been stolen
from many who have lived with a mental illness, diagnosed or not. Art gives a new language,
free of stigma and loaded vocabulary, with which these experiences can be shared as being
more human than otherwise.  On May 19th, UpStage Stigma will offer a space for those who seek
to heal themselves, and offer hope to others, through art.

Information about UpStage Stigma can be found at www.upstagestigma.org.  The show is free to
the public, with a $10 suggested donation that will benefit the Friends of PACT, the Program for
Assertive Community Treatment.  Doors open at 7pm, May 19th, at the Majestic Theatre in
Madison, WI.