A blogging colleague of mine have been talking a little bit about stigma reduction associated with keeping mental illness symptoms associated with the illness itself rather than with the person. For example, the anxiety that I experience is a feature of my bipolar illness rather than some character defect or short-coming of my person. What if we were to try to represent and talk about mental illness symptoms as being features of the illness or diagnosis itself rather than characteristics of the person or the patient? By way of example, we do not think a breast cancer survivor is cancerous. Instead we say she has had cancer and fought it and is still fighting it and/or is in remission. The disease and its symptoms are not synonymous with the patient. In fact with cancer it is the other way around. People always talk about those people who are able to beat the illness cancer — it it not a part of who that person is but rather a fight to fight and to win and to overcome.
So why do we think of mental health symptoms as somehow the failure of the person experiencing the symptoms such as anxiety, depression, PTSD or some form of psychosis? When it’s mental we tend to assign the symptoms to the patient rather than to the illness. This person is anxious. This person is depressed. This person is psychotic. This makes overcoming the stigma of mental illness even tougher.
So what would it look like if we started talking about mental illness symptoms as part of the illness rather than part of the person experiencing them? It might make us more inclined to believe that getting over anxiety or depression or PTSD or psychosis is a matter of the treatment of the illness rather than the integrity of the patient or the person experiencing the symptoms.
What do you think? Do you think mental health patients are asked “to own” their symptoms in a way that cancer patients are not? Do you feel mental health stigma could be reduced if we were to more often disassociate mental health symptoms from the person experiencing them? Could mental illness be considered a challenge to fight and/or to get through like a cancer but not the result of some character defect on the part of the patient? Do we need ways of talking about mental health that include giving credit for actively working to keep symptoms under control and/or having them be in remission for a time? Do we need ways of talking about successes we have had in combatting our mental illness diagnoses even if those troubles still exist for us on some level? What of all this might help to address the stigma of mental illness?
2 thoughts on “A way toward stigma reduction?”
I think a big difference between how society someone with cancer vs. someone with mental illness is that mental illness is treated as taking over the whole person, whereas someone with cancer is seen as being more than just a person with cancer. Either kind of illness can affect many parts of a person’s life, but it’s not the core of who they are. I think it would help if people could see us as real, whole individuals with many different aspects of our lives, and illness doesn’t affect every aspect all of the time.
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Good point. I was once at a NAMI event talking to first responders about intervention with people with psyche emergencies mostly college kids. The first responders seemed relieved to know or to realize that people with mental illness were not always in crisis — that the first responders were seeing them when symptoms were at their worst and that at other times those same people may seem in fact “normal” or at least not in crisis. I think the first responders felt relieved that they could carry on a conversation with someone with mental illness quite easily outside the context of crisis management. I got the impression that first responders may have believed that those college kids displayed severe crisis symptoms all the time or most of the time which is happily not generally the case. Or at least I don’t think so. Crisis symptoms and crisis intervention are not necessarily representative of a person’s general well-being over time.
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