Defeating the Stigma of Mental Illness: How Our Relentless Ignorance Harms Those Who Need Our Help Most

There are few things in the world that bug me more than people calling my patients ‘crazy.’ Whenever I tell someone that I’m a psychotherapist, I often get the common response, “Oh, so you talk to crazy people all day.” Not only is that comment unbelievably insulting, but it’s also incredibly inaccurate. Much of what I want to do with this blog is to challenge standard, and hopefully diminishing, ways of thinking. It’s rare for one to act as a Socrates and to ask themselves if what they think and believe is accurate, as we tend to pass on and accept our perceptions as though they were self-evident (even though most of our cultural beliefs are far from it); however, I’d like to use this space in the service of helping others develop the capacity for inner Socratic dialogue, and to help them challenge some their erroneous and, more importantly, harmful beliefs.

The notion of crazy, or disturbed, has been used repetitiously to marginalize groups of people; it’s been used as a means of feeling superior and as a form of bullying. When there is the other… the beast, the savage, the outsider, we can project all sorts of terrible and frightening qualities onto them; we can view them as deviant, while maintaining our own purity. Throughout my therapy work, I’ve had the privilege of helping people in their attempts to overcome their symptoms and the stigma which they entail. And in those brief moments of intimacy, I’ve learned that all of them, in the ways that encompass our humanity, are exactly like you and me. They have joys and they have fears, they suffer and hurt, they grieve and they love; and, they seek the same things that all of us do: happiness and connection. Their issues are our issues; although, it’s seldom mentioned. Over and over again, studies show that the vast majority of the population will, at some point, experience a diagnosable mental disorder; but, unfortunately, a good portion of those individuals will fear seeking help because of the stigma attached to their experiences. It does more than marginalize people; it helps perpetuate mental illness, isolating and alienating people in the process.

It’s my hope that we’ll someday disavow these toxic labels. Practically speaking, they’ve worked to divide and isolate us from one another, and they’ve helped to maintain the poor conceptions we have of ourselves and each other. Logically and rationally speaking, they simply don’t make sense. To call someone crazy, or to label them as a particular disorder, is to be irrational ad absurdum. In a pervious post, I discussed the toxicity of self-esteem, and in that post, I focused on labeling, with its corrosive affect on mental health and well-being, and its absurdity. To, for example, label someone as ‘Borderline’ (short for Borderline Personality Disorder) or as ‘a depressive’ is to reduce their personality to a cluster of symptoms which can never fully encompass an individuals character. To label someone as any mental disorder is to not only negate them and their being, but it’s also to grossly misapprehend the notion of mental disorders, their development, and their nature. As scary as it might be to accept, as this would negate our notion of normality and possibly even purity, mental disorders, and yes, personality disorders also, exist on a continuum, implying that outside of the standard diagnosable disorders, a significant portion of the public meets some of the criteria for them.

To continue to utilize Borderline Personality Disorder as an example, which is the most feared disorder for clinicians to work with, the disorder itself is not so much categorical as it is continuous, existing on a spectrum of symptoms that define it. Due to the fact that BPD has been perceived in terms of stunted development, where a significant portion of the symptoms make sense at an earlier developmental stage, it would appear reasonable to accept that, while undiagnosable, there are many more individuals who meet some of the criteria for the disorder. Additionally, to label someone as ‘Borderline’ is to negate the fact that, at one time or another, we ourselves have, or have had close ones who have, experienced patterns of instability in moods and relationships; it’s to negate the fact that we’re more similar to those individuals with that particular diagnosis than we wish to admit. And, to label someone as ‘Borderline’ is to negate another’s history and their trauma, effectively carving out the why of their place in arrested development, finding fault in their nature instead, rather than acknowledging their environment, which would be the predominant fact in their illness.

All of this begs the questions: What do we do now? How can we be more accurate? And how can we be more empathic? The answer, fortunately, is somewhat simple. We change the labels into descriptions of possessions. To say that someone has an addiction or has a mental disorder is to acknowledge the temporary, and fluctuating, manifestations of such possessions, while accepting that those individuals are much more than their latent or manifest symptoms. To disavow the labels is also to say that we accept the latest science which indicates that personalities are not only in states of flux, but that each of us possesses a different set of personalities within ourselves; an incalculable plethora of beings that encompasses the personalities which we’ve called our own.

To use labels is to reduce ourselves and others, to devalue or overvalue them, essentially creating mental images, and misperceptions, which fail to capture the essence of the human beings we attempt to know and connect with. When we start to strip ourselves and others of labels, we begin to see ourselves and each other as we truly are; and, we acquire the ability to achieve that which all of us yearn for: genuine intimacy.

With respect to the widespread, moral failings of racism and racial discrimination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “If this problem isn’t solved, the soul of our nation will be lost.” And I apply his quote to pertain to our relentless mistreatment of those struggling with mental illness, hoping to mitigate our collective unwillingness to accept our collective kinship; for, if we continue to refuse, refraining from disavowing our hitherto forms of malice and vindictiveness, our nation’s soul will be lost, perhaps irredeemably so.

4 Comments

  1. I have a colleague who thinks people with depression and those who commit suicide are weak. She thinks that it’s their excuse or way of running away from the problem. For her, it’s merely thinking positive and being a fighter. She does not know how people with depression fight every day to make it through the day. I don’t know how to change her mind to make it more open and understanding. It hurts too because I do struggle with depression and she thinks people like me are just whiners, seeking attention.

    Like

    1. I’m so sorry that that has been your experience. Her reactions stem from outdated views of self-control and mental illness. People can’t just turn off their depression, but only work toward alleviating it through therapy and medication, which takes time and patience.

      And, I argue against positive thinking altogether, and think it’s just as toxic as negative thinking; realistic thinking is the way to go.

      There’s some truth in what she says; you are a fighter! Thank you for visiting my blog, and for your thoughtful feedback; I hope it’s helped you in some way.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s