Sticking it to the Stigma
I recently read an article in an advice column to readers writing in with psychological questions. As you can imagine, it’s the type of column we all click on to read, its catchy, it pulls us in with attention grabbing headlines on questions we may ask ourselves all the time. With this particular article, a woman wrote in asking how to help her partner through his depression and how to cope with the difficulties that come up in the relationship.
The psychologist responded with very encouraging advice, advising the woman that depression is apparently like some other medical conditions – that it can be managed but that it’s not something that can be “cured” and that her partner will need to live with his depression and, of course, that SHE will need to live with it, too. She also wrote about the fact that, as a partner of someone with depression, you will be “sacrificing” yourself to it and that you better “think more about whether this is something you’re really on board with”.
I read things like this and I don’t know about you, but I find it infuriating. And truly saddening. It is sad that this view is still out there, that a very popular blog that is read by a lot of people is spreading a view that STIGMATIZES mental illness and mental problems.
Now…I usually try writing my blogs with a positive spin on things, but sometimes it’s a bit difficult. Especially after reading things like that. It is disheartening for me and I am a little over-awed by the sheer power of the illness myth and somehow generating an alternative social narrative seems like too immense a problem for me to solve. A colleague whom I was speaking to about this hit the nail on the head saying that “it sometimes feels like poking an elephant with a small stick”. I just feel that if we are going to talk about things like “mental health” and “mental illness” then we are tackling a bigger social problem consisting of social narratives written to make mental health a crisis and a converted medical disorder, instead of tackling the idea that people have problems. Sometimes it really is as simple as that. Problems that should not be individualised through a medical diagnosis, problems that do not equal an illness to be cured. Problems are problems.
As a young “new age” psychologist as I like to think of myself, I’d like to think that we need to rewrite the psychological social norms out there. Many problems are centred around what media puts out there like people having mental health issues, mental health problems, mental health illnesses. Can it not be that we rather look for distress and difficulties of all kinds instead of contributing someone’s very individualised and specific problems into a clinically diagnosable category? The concept of diagnosing may be helpful but not entirely encompassing; it lumps together problems that people may have from and for entirely different reasons under single disorders. And I think the reality is, if we follow this logic with the language used in media it forces us to either become a label or to avoid seeking help because we don’t want to become a label.
So if I haven’t made my view too clear just yet, here it is – STICK IT STIGMA.
I am not taking away from the importance that some people DO have severe cases of (e.g.) depressed mood. But I also don’t want to take away from the majority of people who are experiencing intense levels of emotional distress but who don’t seek help due to feeling that it’s not intense enough, that it’s “normal” levels of stress that it's not "diagnosable" so no point in seeking help.
So, I guess what I’m trying to get out there is that the concept of mental health is a hindrance rather than a help in the grand landscape of problems that may arise from unique social circumstances, cultural beliefs, social norms and social narratives written over decades. The fact is – life is tragic sometimes, and entirely messy at most and people are so beautifully individually unique that it is sad to attribute their genuine emotional distress to clinical illnesses which can or can’t be cured.
Would you find it weird if someone said they’ve been going to yoga every week to work on their strength and mindfulness? What about if someone told you they going to the pharmacy to get tablets for their headache? What about if someone said they’re going to their tutoring class to get help in a certain subject? No you wouldn’t! So why should it be weird to hear someone going to therapy for help in managing their emotional distress? It’s the same concept. So why make it stand out as something not-same.
So - join me and many other like minded people in sticking the stigma on mental health, lets change the social narrative and write a better story for everyone out there. A narrative where seeking help for specific problems is normal. A narrative where we can share our emotional distress without fearing a clinical illness label. A narrative where we can be open to working on actual causes of our problems instead of thinking of ourselves as ill. A narrative where we can openly promote help seeking behaviours!