Beyond Stigma

If you’re having a conversation about mental health, and aren’t some kind of professional in the field, chances are high that the concept of stigma is going to come up. It seems to be the buzzword these days- everyone wants to end the stigma.

Just like everyone else, I would love to see the mental health landscape change, to see stigma disappear. But unlike everyone else, I hate the word stigma.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the word itself. It’s not like the grudge many people hold against yolk, slurp, or, heaven forbid, moist.

I just wish we would all stop talking about stigma.

The more we talk about stigma, the more I become convinced that we don’t actually know what we’re talking about. Stigma has become a buzzword, a trend, and I think it’s lost it’s meaning. If I were to ask you to define stigma right now, what would you say? I imagine you’d start by being all confident:

“Stigma is…”

And then stop, because you wouldn’t be sure what else to say, or quite how to say it.

I asked Google what stigma was, since they always have an answer, and got this definition: a mark of disgrace. Adding my own two cents, something that is stigmatised is perceived negatively. Taking this definition into consideration, what does it mean when we say we want to end the stigma of mental illness? Basically, it seems, the goal is to erase the negative connotations that come along with mental illness, and to have it perceived as something that is more normal. Sounds pretty simple right- and like a pretty good thing, too. Until I ask again- what does that really mean?

Last year, I attended a Student Wellness Conference at Acadia, where student leaders from all over NS came together to discuss mental health, alcohol use, and substance abuse. There were a lot of really good conversations during this day-long event, and one of my favourites was around the question “What will the future look like?” For about half an hour, I discussed with Emily, an Acadia student, and Brian, from StudentsNS, what we thought the mental health landscape would look like 10 years from now, or what we wanted it to look like. The obvious answer was that the stigma would be gone. But for me, that merely raises another question.

What does a world without stigma look like?

And this is where my problem with our current fascination with stigma really begins.

In 10 years, at the rate we’re going, I don’t think we’re going to be living in a world where mental illness is without stigma. I think we’re going to be living in a world where everyone is very aware that mental illness exists. Everyone will be able to recite “1 in 5 people will experience depression in a lifetime,” along with the dozens of other facts we promote in our anti-stigma campaigns. But what greater effect is that really going to have? I don’t think it’s going to make the change we’re hoping for.

Stigma is made up of a number of different components. One of them is a lack of awareness, and we’re doing a pretty good job in that category. But stigma also comes from a lack of understanding. . Yet all, or at least the majority, of anti-stigma campaigns I’ve seen are solely focused on awareness.

We can’t truly accept what we don’t understand.

The first step is to arm people with knowledge. What is depression? What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder? How do we treat schizophrenia? How do we distinguish between someone with anxiety disorder, and someone who gets anxious once in a while? Knowledge gives us a (very) rough understanding of what is going on. It allows us to help identify when someone is struggling, and it allows us to help point them to someone or something that can help. But it has it’s limits.

The limits of knowledge don’t extend very far.

The second step is to arm people with understanding. This is where we are falling far, far short of the mark. Mental health and mental illness is more than just a list of facts and figures. It’s more than just a list of symptoms. Depression is more than just “feeling sad”, bipolar disorder is more than just “crazy mood swings”, and schizophrenia is more than just “hallucinations and paranoid delusions”. We need to learn, to be taught, how to treat people with a mental illness. We need to be able to adapt our behaviours and actions to best suit their needs. And we can only really do this if we have some understanding of mental illness.

I firmly believe that once we start to take the time to understand how people with a mental illness are truly feeling, what they are truly dealing with, how they are truly coping on a daily basis, what they truly need from us- then we will start to really make a difference.

I don’t want to simply end the stigma. I want to begin the understanding.

Because that’s the only way we’ll ever actually see the answer to “What will the future look like.”

What’s your take on stigma, and how would you like to see us move forward in this fight for mental health? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Featured image by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

3 thoughts on “Beyond Stigma

  1. I’m not going to lie – at the beginning, you had my advocacy alarms ringing. Stop talking about stigma!? what are you driving at? Because, from my point of view, at least we’re TALKING about it. Mental Illnesses has progressed from something that was an elephant in the room that no one wanted to address, so now something that people are taking note of. So I fear that if we derail the train of progress we’re on, that we will end up slipping back into an era where Mental illnesses are not addressed. On the other hand, I really like your last quote – “I dont simply want to end the stigma. I want to begin the understanding”. As a passionate advocator for Mental illness awareness and stigma reduction, I couldnt agree more – and has been the driving source of my career choice. Thank you for having the courage to post something like this, and thank you for taking the time to research it and put thought into it. Hopefully, in 10 years from now we will be having conversations on how our education and awareness can keep the movement going.

  2. When you work/study/live within community services it’s easy to become jaded with ‘buzz words’ because so many are used without thorough consideration. I think there are many people with a sound understanding of what stigma is, and to be honest in this instance I consider a “sound understanding” to be the same understanding that I have. I don’t mean that to sound conceited in any way, I just believe I have a fairly logical and informed understanding of what stigma is.

    This is not to say in any way that I disagree with what you are saying. I have considered stigma many times and felt utterly defeated. The fact of it is, the general population can have buckets full of good intentions, but at the end of the day it is nearly impossible to truly understand mental illness without having experienced it. The only people that come close in my experience are professionals who have studied and worked in the field for years, but we can’t expect every person out there to study for years and then work with us all. So I don’t know how to change this, I know that talking about things and educating people is a good thing, I know we need more understanding and education, but like you said, will it simply arm society with a text book definition understanding of the illness as opposed to an applicable understanding of the illness, how it affects the persons life, how to help the person when they are experiencing an episode and so on.

    I don’t think there will be an end to stigma in the next few lifetimes at least, but I think we can work and strive to educate and share stories and simply try our best to help others understand.

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