Leon’s Existential Cafe

The Stigma of Mental Illness: Why We Need to Understand Ourselves

The Effects of Stigma

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.

What I learned in My Practice

Throughout my therapeutic 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 ways that encompass our humanity, are exactly like 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.

How Labels Foster Social Isolation

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. 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. Outside of the standard diagnosable disorders, a significant portion of the public meets some of the criteria for them.

Lack of a Clear Dividing Line Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

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.

Intimacy Through Empathy

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 should 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 can possess conflicting traits that manifest in different settings: one can be extroverted among small groups, or friends, and introverted around large groups, or strangers.

Using labels for ourselves or others either devalues or overvalues us/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.

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