By definition, according to a few on-line dictionaries, stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. Synonyms and related words include shame, disgrace, dishonor, humiliation, bad reputation.
People who experience serious struggles with mental health have been taught, in many societies, to hide or suppress their challenges and keep quiet about it due to the fear of having a bad reputation and fear of shaming themselves or others by admitted to what has been previously perceived as weakness of mind and character. It’s like being entangled in a complex web of suffering compounded by the fear of judgement by others and its subsequent consequences of self-isolation.
I offer my criticism of the current efforts toward reducing the stigma of mental health with a certain amount of lightheartedness. I applaud the fact that there are many efforts being made. I just think the nature of the efforts is a bit backwards. Meaning, some of the efforts (public awareness campaigns, fundraising initiatives, advertisements, and health promotion strategies) are actually contributing to the many misconceptions that people have of mental health challenges as opposed to changing people’s perception in a helpful way. Depression, anxiety, and other mood or trauma related experiences, are first and foremost normal and not an illness. They are states of mind and they are states of mind that can be transformed, but it does take work. Transformation of an unhelpful state of mind doesn’t happen with the same treatments as a physical health condition. transformation doesn’t occur through prescription of medications or through a reinforced person that something is fundamentally wrong with you, requiring medical treatment. Transformation of a state of mind requires practice in doing just that; transforming your state of mind (your state of thinking and self-perception).
“Reducing the stigma” or “Let’s end the stigma” campaigns are in fact trying to encourage people who struggle with mental health challenges to recognize it’s pervasiveness, normalize it, and reach out for help. This, I agree with. Most campaigns and advertisements are also trying to educate the general public that people with mental health challenges aren’t to be treated as intentionally harmful when they’re actions are harmful. The effort is geared toward eliminating the discrimination of people who suffer. This I also mostly agree with. People aren’t “crazy’ for the most part, they are simply and truly unhappy and the ripple effect of their unhappiness affects others and it also scares others who don’t understand it. People who are hurt, hurt others…often times.
The language that I have a hard time with and that I have noticed having a negative impact on the very people the campaigns are supposed to advocate for, is the language of disease and illness. Equating depression or any other mental health problem is NOT the equivalent of cancer, or heart disease. It may be related. There are ties between our body and our mind. mental health and physical health conditions are both linked to stress/ distress. There are some parallels in the treatment approaches. And I do understand that the intention, when making this link, is to send the message that there isn’t any stigma attached to asking for help with a physical health issue so why should it be different when admitting to a mental health challenge?
The problem and the criticism I have is that when you tell someone who already believes that there is something fundamentally wrong with him or her (cognitive nature of depression) that he or she has a disease, needs medical treatment, and to not be ashamed of it, you’re reinforcing the very perspective that led to the stigma and the fear of asking for help in the first place. It goes the same for addictions. If you truly believe that addictions is a disease and it empowers you to stay sober, great. It the belief that you have a disease creates a sense of “I am broken”, the disease model is not helpful. Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders (which are the most common mental health challenges, cause of suicides, and the ones most campaigns are aimed at ending the stigma of) are rooted in deep negative self-beliefs and are not illnesses. The person who struggles with any of these is perfectly whole and complete just as he or she is. There is nothing to fix, nothing to change, nothing to treat, other than a pattern of thought that is getting in the way of the person perceiving themselves as whole and complete. There are many practices and complimentary treatments that are aimed at bringing the person back to a state of wholeheartedness that involves tapping into the healing qualities of the body. these practices include mindfulness, meditation, yoga, certain forms of psychology/ psychotherapy, and other alternative approaches to medication.
If we are acknowledging what we now know about Neurological-plasticity and the ability to “re-wire” the brain, then let’s end the stigma of mental health with messages and public awareness campaigns that remind people to let go of a disease perspective and to take responsibility for the health and happiness. If we align our mental health services, health promotion initiatives, and awareness advertisements with the perspective that people are simply not happy, we could make much more progress than what will be achieved by trying to educate people that mental health challenges are illnesses that are treatable through medical services.
I would have more to say, but it begins to all sound the same after a while. If you have any comments, questions, or objections, please respond and I would be happy to expand or challenge my own expression of my criticism of this.
I basically believe that any campaigns fueled by a medical approach to mental health treatment is just missing part of the puzzle… the magnificence and inner wisdom of our whole human system part of the puzzle.