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Stigma the word and mental health

stigma – a generally-held poor or distasteful view associated with something – from the Roman practice of branding slaves’ foreheads; a ‘stigma’ was the brand mark, and a ‘stigmatic’ was a branded slave; hence ‘stigmatise’, which has come to mean ‘give something an unlikeable image’. Originally from the Greek word ‘stigma’, a puncture.

1590s, “mark made on skin by burning with a hot iron,” from L. stigma (pl. stigmata), from Gk. stigma (gen. stigmatos) “mark, puncture,” especially one made by a pointed instrument, from root of stizein “to mark, tattoo,” from PIE *st(e)ig- (see stick (v.)). Figurative meaning “a mark of disgrace” is from 1610s, as is stigmatize in this sense. Stigmas “marks resembling the wounds on the body of Christ, appearing supernaturally on the bodies of the devout” is from 1630s; earlier stigmate (late 14c.), from L. stigmata.

Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a kind of tattoo mark that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places (Healthline Network Inc., 2007).

The feeling that there is a stigma attached to serious mental illness is often used to justify the biological medical theory of psychiatry. According to this theory, mental illness is a biological disorder from which there is ordinarily little to no chance of making a full recovery. If a person cannot recover their mental health after having developed a mental illness, then the best you can expect to do is to try and change people’s perceptions of the illness. The fact is that people can and do recover their mental health after having received mental disorder diagnoses. This fact flies in the face of the illusions fostered by the biological medical theory of psychiatry.

If there is a stigma attached to mental illness, there is no stigma attached to mental health. When a person recovers his or her mental well being after losing it, any stigma associated with the disorder must vanish as well. Perhaps it would be better if we hung on to this notion of stigma a little longer lest more and more people get the idea that the way to be is mentally unsound. I don’t think there is a stigma associated with mental health yet, but do we really need one? Advertisements for illness don’t really make me go all soft and gooey inside, and I don’t tend to think they should do so either.

This aversion to recovering that many of people in treatment have is the thing that really needs to be countered. The notion of being ‘in recovery’ permanently comes from the realm of substance abuse services, and although there may be an addictive element to inappropriate behavior (i.e. symptoms of mental illness), I don’t think that any compulsion to display symptoms of mental illness is of the same order as an addiction to heroin would be, for example. When the process of recovery, completes itself, and one can put one’s discomfort in the past tense, saying that one has recovered, then one has managed to get somewhere.

Unfortunately, most mental health treatment facilities are operating under the oppressive shadow of the pessimism of their professionals. The “we think you can’t” mantra transferred to their clientelle becomes the “I think I can’t” mantra. The important lesson everybody learns in nursery school, “I think I can”, in most cases, has been lost. When you teach people not to succeed, you are teaching people to fail. What people are being taught to fail at, in these instances, is recovery. The person who succeeds at recovering, succeeds in passing beyond “recovery”. Guess what, folks? This or that impasse isn’t everything. Life goes on outside the treatment facility doors.