One of my favorite activities as a group facilitator involved the topic of stigma, or the “societal labels.” I stood in front of the six-foot whiteboard holding my dry erase marker. I asked my clients one simple question, “What words or names have people called you to describe your mental illness?” The conversation following this question sounded like popcorn in the microwave. My clients sat there with a befuddled look on their faces, thinking back to their own experiences or were too embarrassed to share their stories. After a minute or so, a group member often spouted out an answer. Then there came another. Then there was another. The conversation was popping at this point. My hand barely kept up with the flow of responses, sometimes writing sideways to fill in what little space was left. It slowed gradually. Taking a step back, the once white board was a plethora of colorful language.
Perusing the board felt like opening up an emotionally troubled thesaurus.
- Low Functioning
- Out of Control
- Bipolar, OCD, etc.
- Out of Touch With Reality
- Won’t Amount to Anything
- Lack Goals
- Train Wreck
- Fucked Up
- Piece of Shit
The list goes on. This is just what I could recall from my memory over the course of ten minutes. The board averaged sixty or so words/phrases.
It never ceased to amaze me what came out of my clients’ mouths during this exercise. To think that these were things said to them while they were down and out from their mental illness.
How does stigma affect self-care?
- Contributes to cognitive narrowing. Those suffering from mental illness usually deal with cognitive distortions. They are not thinking straight. Stigma provides irrational support for irrational thought patterns. In this state of mind, an individual often puts themselves down and has low self esteem. Take any of the words from above and let them ruminate in this person’s mind. That individual will find it harder and harder to find evidence to combat against their inner voice.
- Reduces hope. Stigmatizing mental illness is anything but inspiring. It is, in fact, degrading. It makes someone feel about two inches tall.
- Feelings of guilt. “Oh, it is just her being OCD.” “He says he is depressed as an excuse not to hangout with us.” “Your anxiety always gets in the way!” These are just a few examples. Pinning someone’s mental health issue against them does not add to their self-worth. It makes them feel responsible for something that they never had control over in the first place. Nobody asks to be mentally ill.
- Labels affect relationships. Those of us dealing with mental illness hope our loved ones will support us through our recovery. Having a strong support network is an essential aspect of one’s well-being and self-care. However, if they get the slightest hint that you are struggling with your mental health, they might look at and treat you differently. Suddenly, those labels take over, and you are no longer their friend or family member. You are your diagnosis. Your loved ones may even become distant out of fear of how you might react. They forget how to be supportive and may cut you out entirely.
- Less likely to follow through on self-care as a whole. From the outside looking in, mental illness comes across as selfish, lazy, and manipulative. The individual uses their symptoms as a piss poor excuse to avoid responsibility, for why they reacted a certain way, or to stay away from people. This is how it seems anyways to a bystander. In fact, mental illness engulfs the individual in an internal struggle. We know we should not feel this way, but we are unsure on how to overcome it. We are scared that if we try to take care of ourselves that it may come off as “selfish.” In this case, it is a lose-lose situation.
Stay tuned for part 2 on how to overcome stigma.
-The Caring Counselor