I Am Who I Am Because of You

Sep 10, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Faith Ikarede Atte

Faith Ikarede Atte, RN, MSN, is a Future of Nursing Scholar studying for her PhD at Villanova University, supported by Independence Blue Cross Foundation. The Future of Nursing program is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

There are things in life so personal and private that when one vocalizes them, there is fear of being judged. It was eleven years ago that I had a personal encounter with myself. It is admittedly odd to look back at the path that I have walked on, now overgrown and distant—yet still so close to my heart.

Eleven years ago is when I lost a sense of who I was in the eyes of society, and I had to look within myself to find my footing. It is during this time that I had arrived from Kenya, full of vigor, light spirited and quick to laughter. I was hungry for knowledge and the sky was the limit.

Little did I know that life was about to teach me a lesson. It became obvious to me that my accent was different. Most immigrants can identify with the situation of being different. The more I spoke, be it in class or in a group of people, the more I felt isolated due to reactions like, “What did you say? Speak up.  Your accent is too thick. I don’t know what you are saying.”

My ideas and thoughts were easily dismissed due to my accent and I slowly lost my voice. I felt stigmatized, bruised and alone. One might be tempted to say that my ego was taking the best of me, but that was not the case. All I needed at that time was a little patience, a little holding of the hand, a little encouragement.

Looking back at the personal soul-searching these reactions caused, I can see how the past has influenced my present and the decisions that I have made and continue making.

A few years ago, I was given an opportunity to work with mentally ill individuals and I quickly discovered that this is a group of people the public has stigmatized for a long time. In them, I could see me—the me of eleven years ago, that is—a person who was scared, afraid to be judged, easily dismissed, and alone.

Little did I know that being in the presence of the mentally ill would ignite my hunger for knowledge to continue with my education with the hope of one day doing a research study on the impact of stigma toward the mentally ill. This population is not only faced with the crippling symptoms of mental illness but they also have to deal with the public’s misconceptions and stereotypic views of them.

This is what my favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, calls The Danger of a Single Story. Associate the mentally ill with madness, violence, hopelessness, and that will be the only—the single—story we know about them. Start the story of a mentally ill person with how violent they are, and that is all we will remember. But start the story with humanness, and the talents of the mentally ill and we change how we view mental illness.

When we have one story of a society, of a group of people, of an individual, we take away their dignity and alienate them. Unfortunately, those who are stigmatized internalize these feelings, and they start to see themselves as society has labeled them.

I want to understand this impact of stigma, so that I can help replace the stigma with empathy and acceptance. And hopefully we, the public, will start to see people as humans first, then everything else, for we all contribute to each other’s life journeys.

There is an African proverb that says, “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu: A person is a person because of people.” I am who I am because of you.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.