How We Can Stop The Stigma Of Mental Illness
If you follow my posts, you know that I’ve been commenting on a brilliant new book that was just published on May 4th. And there was a passage in there that got me thinking about how stigmatized mental illness is; and subtle ways we can help shift the way our society thinks about it.
The book I mentioned is called We Can Do Better, written by a professor at the University of Toronto, David Goldbloom. I was gifted an advanced reading copy of it and was invited to offer my thoughts. If you want to read my official review of it, click here! There were some great insights he brought up that I had given little to no consideration prior to reading the book.
Just below the surface
Mental illness can be so debilitating. And sadly, it can actually bring a lot of shame on genuine sufferers of the condition. There are so many ways one can be afflicted psychologically, too. So what may come across as laziness, absent-mindedness, self-absorption, pettiness, or just a downright lack of intelligence (in specific cases), may, in fact, be symptomatic of legitimate diagnoses (ie., clinical depression, pharmaceutical side-effects, obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD], attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], or some other malady).
Being that underlying mental disorders are innumerable and generally fit within a spectrum of severity, it’s easy to judge ones harshly when certain individuals come by these afflictions quite honestly.
A ‘trivialization of illness’
I believe herein lies the source of the stigma attendant with so many of these psychiatric conditions. I’m going to share a little blurb here from Professor Goldbloom. It was so valuable that I found room for improvement in my own speech, to stop the stigma and improve the way we look at these ones as a society. He writes,
“ADHD, sometimes shortened to ADD, is one of those sets of initials that people now use casually in everyday conversation as a kind of shorthand — “I’m so ADD today I can’t find my car keys.” It’s much the same with how people refer to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — “I like to keep my DVDs organized by movie genre; I know it’s so OCD of me.” Some could argue that this represents greater literacy or acceptance of mental illness, but I don’t buy it. To me, it is a trivialization of illness, a self-mocking joke that betrays a lack of awareness of just how debilitating, intrusive, and persistent the symptoms can be. Similarly, when the weather forecaster on TV says the weather is “Schizophrenic today, with sunshine in the morning and a downpour in the afternoon,” it bears no relation to the reality of that illness.”
I’m as guilty as anyone
I’m not going to lie, I’m frequently guilty of this myself. Just the other day — even after having read this book — someone asked me how my work was. “Are you busy?” And I responded with, “It’s steady. Which is welcomed, actually; better than being dead slow or psychotically slammed.” And I immediately remembered that passage.
It’s possible Goldbloom, as a psychiatric professional, is being slightly over-sensitive. There’s that old expression ‘not to joke with the tradespeople’. This is to suggest that experts take their work so seriously that they frequently lack a sense of humour about it. So yes, there might be a bit of that going on too.
But being a victim of mental illness – or close to someone who is – it’s perfectly understandable that some folks may react more tenderly to such comments. You can hardly blame them!
That remark of Professor Goldbloom was incredibly valuable to me, as I don’t want to contribute to the problem. We want sufferers of mental illness to come forward and ask for help.
Understanding that word, ‘stigma’
I believe this is precisely what’s so tragic about stigma. It’s a perception, an impression. Stated differently, if someone is said to have a stigmatism, it means they have a mark or defect on their optical lens. It pulls focus and distorts their vision.
The stigma of mental illness does the exact same thing. By ignoring, jesting, trivializing or shaming a subject so afflicted, we have effectively distorted things and drawn attention to a crisis that is actually quite common – and should really be addressed, not concealed.
In fairness, these remarks are made rather innocently. They stem from a lack of literacy, education and awareness of the reality.
Of course, people generally don’t intend to be cruel. They don’t go around teasing those consigned to wheelchairs or mock cancer victims for hair loss. They don’t explicitly shame those who are overweight. No, it is when we catch people staring or when thoughtless comments are made; that’s what hurts!
This is the shroud of humiliation sufferers of mental illness exist under. And they stay in the shadows until the condition is so acute and no longer bearable. Frequently, this exacerbates the affliction and leads to even greater damage than if they had just gotten help ab initio.
Greater awareness can be achieved!
I even remember a video of one of Goldbloom’s lectures where he recounted the experience of a woman at the clinic who opened up to him about — I believe it was — her husband’s battle with cancer. And while Goldbloom applauds our culture for being more accepting and welcome toward the discussion of cancer, he offhandedly remarked, “How often do you hear perfect strangers open up about their own battle with a mental disorder, or being close to a sufferer who has endured the crucible?” (This quote is not verbatim.)
Mental illness is just as common, and arguably even more prevalent, than cancer is. So that’s a good observation, too, I hadn’t given much thought.
Anyway, after I read all this, I’ve decided to be a little more careful with that kind of language. And who knows, if we all are, think about what kind of progress could be made in helping to mitigate this cultural impression we have toward mental illness. How might this translate into more victims seeking help and finding respite!
Tell me your views on that below in the responses. What are some thoughtless remarks you’ve become the wiser to? In what other ways can we help to #stopthestigma toward mental illness?