While we’ve made great strides in the past three decades in helping people understand that a person’s mental illness is as real as the flu, breaking your leg, or having a disease like diabetes, we still have a ways to go.
Too many well-meaning people continue to discriminate against those with a mental illness. They do this in too many ways to mention or list here, but we’ve all seen or heard them.
“Well, I can’t see anything wrong with you, so what’s the problem?”
“Depression’s not a real disease. It’s just something people made up so they wouldn’t feel so bad.”
“You can tell he’s a schizophrenic. You can just see it.”
This kind of skepticism and discrimination about mental illness hurts. It hurts not only the people who struggle with these very serious concerns every day of their lives, but also their family and loved ones. The disbelief. The labeling. The ignorance.
And it hurts all of society, because it continues to alienate and minimize the person’s suffering. The person’s very real pain and suffering.
Dr. Steve Scholzman over the CommonHealth blog makes a good case on how everyday skepticism about mental illness or a mental health issue chips away at all of the progress we’ve made over the years:
I think it’s because plenty of people still feel that psychiatric suffering isn’t real. And this causes genuine harm. If Sally encounters resistance to the fact that she’s suffering, she’ll almost certainly be less likely to seek care. If she feels that her non-psychiatric doctors don’t take her suffering seriously, then she’s going to suffer quietly and dangerously.
There’s even evidence that doctors themselves don’t believe this type of pain is real — and they sometimes wonder whether depression results from a moral failing.
And that’s a shame, because people from school administrators to other doctors who believe that psychiatric illnesses aren’t real are demonstrating their own ignorance and lack of understanding. There is a huge science and research base that’s developed over the past 50 years that demonstrates the quite clear truth — mental illness is real. People who have it suffer real pain.
No researcher in the field of psychology would even question these fundamentals. There a given as much as gravity is to physics. Yet (mostly) well-meaning individuals every day tell both the researchers and people who suffer from these illnesses that what they’re experiencing isn’t “real” or legitimate. They are akin to a science denier, and might as well roll out their map of the flat Earth.
A Person is Not a Label
Far too often, we still read how a “schizophrenic” feels a certain way, or someone who is “borderline” has stormy relationships. But the actual reality of most people’s mental illness is that a person is not the sum total of their diagnosis.
Boiling a person down to a label like this is dishonest and discriminatory (whether you mean it or not). Using this kind of short-hand to describe the sum of all of a person’s life, experiences, and history is also just plain sloppy writing.
A person is not their diagnosis. A person is not their disorder.
There’s a long history of using these short-hand labels to help describe people, and even many people who suffer from a mental illness will use them to describe themselves. While I find the latter less troublesome, I find the former more so, since it conveys a simplistic understanding of mental illness — especially when supposed-learned professionals (doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and the like) do it.
Taking a Stand
Next time someone questions whether somebody is telling the truth about their diagnosis or pain, or you hear someone describe another human being as a psychiatric label, take a stand to correct the misinformation.
Skeptic: “I’m not sure why your son who’s suffering from depression should be given special treatment.”
The response: “I’m not asking for special treatment for my son — I’m asking you to treat him just as you would anyone with a medical condition, like the flu or a broken leg.”
Skeptic: “Oh, you know her, that’s just the way borderlines like her are, always storming out of the room!”
The response: “I doubt I know about any such generalization that could be so broadly applied to an entire group of people like that. She’s not a ‘borderline,’ but yes, I’m aware of her diagnosis. She’s actually a very complex human being — much like you and I are.”
We still have a ways to go to help combat the discrimination, skepticism and prejudice that goes on in this world toward mental illness. We can all make inroads in helping to reduce it, though, by taking a stand and correcting people’s misunderstandings when given an opportunity to do so.
For Further Reading
Read the full article: Persistent Stigma, Skepticism About Mental Illness Causes Real Harm