BRUNSWICK — What is discrimination? According to Webster’s dictionary, it is “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people.”

What is stigma? According to Webster’s dictionary, it is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.”

Discrimination has a long history in this country. We have developed an understanding that it is not OK to discriminate against people based on their race, color, religion, sexual orientation, culture or mental or physical disability. Conversely, we still have a long way toward acceptance of each other because of our fear. What do we fear? We fear what we do not understand.

I regularly hear discriminatory comments such as “psych patient,” “loony bin,” “that patient,” “repeat customer” and the worst: “Why bother? They will be back” or “They’ll do it again!” The thing is, these statements are made not just by others in the community who are observing them but also by the humans who happen to have an illness themselves! So, although we have come a long way, there is much to be done to reduce stigma, reduce discrimination and to build our acceptance and understanding of mental illness.

Why do we separate the physical and the mental? Because historically, we did not know enough about the mind. The human body itself is still discriminated against. The physical body vs. the mind: Is the mind part of the body, or something we carry around with us?

Our body is our body, and sometimes it becomes ill. We get a cold; we recover. It does not mean we will never get a cold again, but we learn how to prevent colds and how to recover faster. Well, guess what? This concept is the same with mental health. Here is where the problem is – stigma, or a better term: discrimination!

I grew up with parents who had mental illness and a brother with substance abuse issues. My parents never received help because of their fears of discrimination; as a result, my childhood was a horror story. In 1996, I was diagnosed with what eventually would be called Type 2 bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

I began my journey to recovery, but it takes time. It is not just about picking yourself up by your bootstraps. However, some forms of media have historically turned mental illness into a horror movie, reinforcing stigma and discrimination, reinforcing the idea that there is no hope and that people with mental illness are to be shoved aside.

This leads me to say: If you have a heart attack, who diagnoses you? Your health insurer? Your government? No! A trained physician, who then treats and helps you manage your illness. If you have a mental illness, the providers who diagnose you should be the ones who determine your treatment.

A person cannot recover when there is discrimination by government administration. This creates barriers, and when there are barriers, humans get tired, humans do not know what to do and human lives are lost. It should not matter if you have the “best” insurance or you are on Medicaid: Humans all have a purpose, as I found out this year. Humans can give back to the community.

Humans need help with any illness in the body, which includes the brain. We do not need the discrimination of our governing parties making crucial, life-threatening decisions, as the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has done by restricting Section 17 community support services.

All illness is major! The definition of major is “important, serious or significant.” Having any illness is significant! Therefore, do not judge, do not divide and do not discriminate!

I encourage all who have experienced mental illness in their families or in themselves to join me in standing up against discrimination in its many forms, whether it’s statements you overhear or policies that cause harm.