February 20, 2015

Breaking the Stigma

Crazy. Unstable. Insane.

These are words you may hear every day. You might even use them sometimes. When the weather, in typical Vancouver fashion, suddenly shifts from a misting rain to a torrential downpour, you might gape out the window and say something like, Wow, the weather’s so bipolar today.

After a fight with a family member, partner, or friend, you might confide in someone else, they’re acting like a total psycho.

It has crept into our language, something insidious. The words we use to describe events we find unreal, extraordinary, unfair – they betray a deep-seated stigmatization of mental illness that many of us have the privilege to never even consider.

Before I speak any further on the topic, I think it is important to recognize my own personal privilege. I am a white, cisgender woman who passes as a mentally healthy individual. I have been living with depression and anxiety since the age of six, and I am overwhelmingly grateful that these health issues have been mostly at bay in recent years. Many people afflicted with mental illness are not so fortunate.

Though I am certainly not an expert on the topic of mental illness and its de-stigmatization, it is a subject close to my heart. Through embracing a greater awareness of these invisible illnesses, I believe that we can lighten the burden of those afflicted. Though consciousness-raising will not remove the pain of those who are suffering, processes of de-stigmatization provide mentally ill people with support to battle against not only their health problems, but the social institutions and prejudice that impede their path to health.

How can we work towards the de-stigmatization of mental illness?

Be aware of the language you use: Though this may seem insignificant, micro aggressions contribute to oppression on a massive level. It may at first feel natural to call something unfair “insane”, but language like this is harmful and ableist.

All this being said, old habits die hard. Changing something as deeply engrained as our vocabularies is not easy to do. Be forgiving with yourself, and be motivated by positivity rather than guilt.

Check your privilege: As always, the privileges you have been given simply by being born into a certain social position are extremely relevant. Be cognisant that an intersectional approach is necessary in de-stigmatizing mental illness. Race, gender, sexuality, and class are inseparably tied to ability and mental health.

Speak up: Though calling out friends, family, and peers is daunting, we must reject silence if we wish to de-stigmatize mental illness. Even a light-hearted, “hey, language like that isn’t cool” goes a long way. It is important to remember that many ableist slurs or comments that trivialize mental illness are made with no ill intentions whatsoever. The person making these comments may simply be ignorant of their implications, and if this is the case, informing them is the first step.

Revision of mental illness: In the same way that it would be absurd to tell someone with a broken leg to simply “get better,” it is equally nonsensical to expect an individual afflicted with mental illness to recover at the snap of a finger. Mental health is just as crucial as physical health, and in order to work towards the de-stigmatization of mental illness, both must be treated on the same plane. Mental and physical health problems are equal in terms of their validity and in terms of the compassion those burdened with them deserve.

It is estimated that approximately 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental illness, including 20% of the Canadian population. The sheer enormity of these numbers reveals the battle that many individuals fight every day: mental illness is an extremely real problem, and a far-reaching one, as well.

Mental illness is so often tied to violence, which is exacerbated by media dramatization; the killer in a horror movie is almost always “insane.” However, according to the American Psychiatric Association, most people who display violent tendencies do not suffer from mental illnesses. In 2001, Appleby et al found that sufferers of mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. People suffering from severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are two and a half times more likely to be attacked or sexually assaulted than those who are mentally healthy.

Instead of fearing people who suffer from mental illness and conceiving of them as “different,” we should be protective of them. These numbers demonstrate the need to prioritize the safety of those with mental health problems. Instead of assuming people with mental illnesses are overacting, we should be supporting them. Instead of laughing and calling someone we don’t like a “psycho,” we should be aware that our very words feed into complex systems of power that work to delegitimize the experiences of marginalized populations.

Be conscious of the power of your words, and know that it takes all of us to create a future in which those with mental health problems can be accepted as they are and given access to the help they need.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *