The “Stigma and Shame” Argument: Flawed?
There is irony and futility in the ‘stigma and shame’ argument that surrounds mental health.
The argument goes something like this:
“Should a person be ‘ashamed’ to see a doctor after slicing a tomato and severing a finger?”
“Should your friend, recently diagnosed with diabetes, be ‘afraid’ to accept insulin treatment, anxious that her peers will think her a ‘lesser person” because of her diagnosis?
“Is a person diagnosed with cancer treated differently in the workplace?
Why, then, does a person who suffers with anxiety or depression, a genuine illness and medical problem like any other, face stigma and shame?
I understand this argument. Those, like me, who suffer with mental health issues are fed up. We’re trying to get the message out that this is a health problem like any other, a health problem that demands treatment like any other illness. A health problem that needs to be taken very seriously.
But it isn’t a health problem like any other. Any more than cancer is.
And the continued focus on the word ‘shame’ merely exacerbates the stigma we’d all like to eradicate.
The stigma is ours to change. We who suffer from mental health issues have to be the spokespeople for depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses, talk about them, open up the dialogue. Just like people with other health issues invariably have to do.
We understand the mental health issues. We live them, I live them – only we can properly explain them, alter how they are perceived, how they are dealt with.
Let me be clear, however. Not all of us can talk openly about our experiences with anxiety and depression. We’re not well enough, or strong enough, or we don’t want to, or it doesn’t feel safe. But some of us can. And more of us must.
The label ‘mental illness” alone is harmful. It means nothing. It also implies too much – that those affected are ‘loony,’ ‘nut cases,’ ‘freaks’ because of supposedly malfunctioning brains. It’s a broad brush label that doesn’t explain the problem.
(And yet, keep this in mind. Even the word ‘cancer’ is still being used in shockingly inappropriate, hurtful ways. “He is a cancer in this workplace.” “Her bad attitude is spreading like a cancer.” Clearly the very word ‘cancer’ still harbours stigma and shame issues too.)
There is another issue forgotten in the mental health argument. We all have a brain. The brain is the most complex organ in the universe. The brain is not easy to understand. A brain can misfire, go awry. Often, no one knows exactly why.
Here are additional facts:
- Stress overload is part of being human, part of being alive, part of being a member of this rushed, frantic, chaotic, competitive society we’re in. Stress overload is a given for all of us.
- When stress ‘overtakes,’ as it can for anyone, at any time, it can and often will morph into a minor, or serious, mental health problem. Particularly so if the person is ‘predisposed’ to mental illness. Know anyone who isn’t?
- Individuals who have family histories of mental health difficulties are even more likely to be affected or easily triggered. Know any family that has not experienced mental health difficulties?
In other words: No one is immune from mental health problems. No one easily escapes their family mental health histories. No one can run from the fact that an otherwise fully functioning individual can suddenly be overcome by a ‘mental health’ issue.
So. What do other illnesses have to do with this?
Mental illness is not about a broken leg or insulin treatment. Yes, mental health treatment is a huge problem, a huge issue. I know all too well about that. But comparing it to other medical treatment (seen in comparison as easily accessed, but that’s not always true) only complicates the issue.
The stigma, I suppose, is the perception that those who suffer have a crazy, malfunctioning brain. However, once you evaluate the utter complexity of the brain, as I did here, you can see why the brain can and does misfire.
Everyone has a brain. Therefore everyone has the capacity to suffer from mental health problems. No one is immune.
I guess we’re all in this together, then, aren’t we?
Those who choose to shame or stigmatize those with mental health issues forget a simple fact: they too have brains. Their brains are vulnerable too. For a whole host of reasons.
We need to share the message that no one is immune. That urgent medical help is needed when mental health issues strike. That mental health issues have far reaching implications, result in family breakdown, isolation, alienation and cold hard fear, in a way that other illnesses do not.
Let’s leave other illnesses out of it. Let’s give mental health the prominence it warrants – on its own.