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:
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!