06 Feb The Stigma of Mental Disorders and How To Lift It
I’m sitting in the lecture hall, Psychology, and I’m listening to the lecturer speak about psychopathology. I’m intrigued. It’s interesting to learn about mental disorders when you have one yourself and it’s fascinating to actually learn it from a clinician’s perspective. But then out came the words, “a mental illness is anything that deviates someone from the norm so when you see someone who is odd, a freak, or weird…”
I sat there offended. Odd? Freak? Weird? I know that he probably didn’t mean it but what shocked me more was that the class erupted into a fit of laughter when he said this, as if nobody in that room is suffering from a mental disorder, as if these people don’t exist. This got me thinking about ableism, and how the stigma surrounding mental disorders makes people feel sidelined. It also made me ponder about types of phrases and concepts that can be offensive.
Ableism is discrimination against those who aren’t neurotypicals. These people are often forgotten about, oppressed and rejected in society. Ableism favours those who are neurotypicals (able-bodied) and ignores those who aren’t. In this instance, my psychology lecturer was using ableist slurs.
‘Mental illness’ is one of the phrases that I find problematic because it implies that mental disorders are something that one can catch, and which can therefore be cured. Although medication and treatment is readily made available, it’s still not enough to fully cure someone of a mental disorder. I much prefer ‘mental disorder’ as this implies that you have disordered neurotransmitters. You are not sick, but rather you have difficulty functioning.
Another problematic thing the lecturer said was that “people don’t realise that loved ones suffer just as much.” Now, although in some cases family and friends struggle to come to terms with the pain that their loved ones with a mental disorder experience, this doesn’t mean that they experience the suffering. They can walk away when it becomes too much to endure. They can say they’ve had enough, leaving the person with a mental disorder to suffer alone.
What else do I deem offensive as someone struggling with a mental disorder? Using mental disorders as adjectives and describing these disorders simply as ‘issues’.
One of the things that really bug me about neurotypicals is the lack of insight they have into the words they use to describe concepts. Look, I don’t blame them for this because it’s due to ignorance and the refusal of society to speak openly about mental disorders. Yet, hearing the weather is Bipolar or “you’re so OCD” for wanting to place your pens in a line, quickly becomes tiresome. It’s not okay to compare mental disorders to adjectives because this prevents others to be open and honest about their own experience with them.
Deeming mental disorders as ‘issues’ is something that speaks to me on a personal level. When people see disorders as issues this worsens the situation for those who experience them. It also demonstrates that people generally have little to no understanding about these disorders and it just adds to the cycle of stigma. We don’t talk about mental health as much as we should, thus, making people who suffer from mental disorders afraid of speaking about their life with a mental disorder.
The only way we can end stigma and make a safe, open space for those with mental disorders is to be more compassionate and to speak about mental health as well as prevent ourselves from using offensive concepts and terms.