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.

3 Responses

  1. The slogan “Let’s reduce the stigma” that you might see on a poster in a psych clinic is loaded with assumptions and it contains a threat.

    It’s another “head nodder”. It says, “Nod your head or else you will be sorry.”

    Somewhere else I think you suggested that the word “discriminate” would be better and I agree. We might be uncertain about what we mean when we use the word “discriminate” so we have a conversation about the word and provide examples of usage. To keep this comment short I’ll say that very often when I have a conversation about discrimination I’ll say to a person, “Damn right I discriminate. I choose clean fresh food over crap, the company of happy honest people over morons. Damn right I’m judgmental and analytical. I make judgments every second of the day about what I want that is logically consistent with choices I’ve made in the past and what is likely to bring about what I want next.”

    But, “Reduce the stigma”?. WTF does it even mean?

    If you get the chance “cross examine” a shrink or one of their minions on the subject. If you do it well you can reduce them to the status of a ten year old schoolyard bully (their real persona) very quickly. The will then do whatever they can to permanently mark you.

    • “Let’s reduce stigma” is certainly loaded with assumptions. I’m not so sure about the threat but, of course, there could be one of those involved, too. 1st assumption: “stigma” is of a measureable quantity. These people want to reduce it because they think there is too much of it. I can see the survey sheets flying out now; questionaires, that is, designed to determine the extent of stigmatizing attitudes in the community. I figure these people can only be so serious about this matter because they are actually accomplices in their own stigmatization. The thought goes, I can’t recover my emotional stability, but maybe I can get people to treat the emotionally unstable better. The community is experiencing its own distress when somebody within it has an issue pulling his or her own weight. A permanent license to play hookie would probably be kind of extreme, don’t you think?

      A slogan I like is “Help us stamp out mental illness”. If mental illness is a mythological bug, how the hell are we going to stamp it out!? You might as well try to exterminate unicorn and dragon infestations. Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

      “Oh, you poor poor pitiful thing you!” A fury of activity at the strings. *Nod. Nod. Nod. Nod.*

      I mentioned prejudice together with discrimination, and I tried to tie it in with the civil rights movement. There is nothing wrong with discriminating taste in clothing, let’s say. There is something wrong with discriminating against people on the basis of skin color, gender, psychiatric history, physical disability, or for any other basically facile reason. We are all part of the family of humanity, and when you disown a member of that family, generation after generation is going to have to deal with the repercussions.

      I also had something to say about how the label can interfere with a person’s identity as a human being. People buy these biological medical psychiatry bull cakes, and they forget that the person behind the label is a person just like themselves. Instead you’ve got a statistical average much like statistics dealing with war casualties or automobile accident fatalities. Dispense with the label, and you have an everyman or an everywoman. This everyman or everywoman should be protected by the laws of the land as they also tend to be a John or Jane Q. Citizen.

      I’ve had plenty of run ins with the psychiatric authorities previously, and I’m due to have even more in the future. As one slogan I’ve used in the past goes, perhaps best qualified by another slogan, “Smash the psychiatric state!”, “End Forced Drugging Now!”

  2. […] Allow me to refresh your memory if perhaps you have forgotten. See: Stigma the word and mental health. […]

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