Losing The Label

The first problem I have with the anti-“stigma” campaign formula as applied to mental patients and ex-patients is the assumption that “mental illness” even exists. People have problems, certainly, and some of these problems affect their thought processes, yes, again, and their social relationships, definitely, but no “mental illness” has ever been found to exist in a tangible sense. Look for it! Neither virus nor bacterial culture exist we can call “mental illness”, and brain injury proper belongs specifically to the neurological department, not the psychiatric department. People annoy people, and people have “break downs”, but just what is really going on in these instances gets lost behind the dismissive categorization of the term “mental illness”. Unreason does not necessarily equal “illness”, the basic presumption being made here.

“Mental illness” as a term came to exist because it was felt that mad people would get better treatment if their conditions were thought of as medical conditions rather than as possession, the result of grief, confusion, poor morals, bad breeding, whatever…being the unknown x that it is. It did not come into existence because any “mental illness” was ever discovered. It came into being because it was felt people would be treated better if it was used, and if bereaved, demented and agitated people were thought of as “ill” people.

When I took Consumer Leadership Training in Virginia I read that prejudice and discrimination were perhaps better words to use than “stigma” because these words were words that had been used in the context of the civil rights struggle, and these words were words that even politicians could understand. The word “stigma” is much more problematic. A “stigma” is a mark of disgrace. If the mark is the disgrace, that’s one thing, if the disgrace is the disgrace, that’s another. This is advice I took to heart.

The issue I’m dealing with here concerns whether people can overcome those shortcomings that got them sent to the loony bin, or whether people are stuck with those shortcomings for life. These shortcomings don’t actually have to be real if they exist in other people’s minds. There is also the disruption of life and the setbacks that institutionalization represents that they must recover from as well. People have managed to fully recover from what are characterized as “serious mental illnesses”. The fact that significant recovery is not seen in a larger percentage than it is seen in is a relative matter. This is certainly not a reason, good or otherwise, for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Prejudice is about leaping to judgment before all the facts are in. Discrimination is about denying people those opportunities that are open to other people. Such discrimination is often and usually based upon prejudice. When we discriminate based on prejudice we are denying chances to people. It is my fervent belief that a person could fail at many initial chances only to find themselves a smashing success after taking a certain chance that mattered. I don’t want to deny this opportunity for success to people. Because I don’t want to deny this opportunity to people I prefer to see the struggle as one of battling prejudice and discrimination directed against people who have received mental health treatment rather than as a battle against any “stigma” attached to people labeled with “mental illness”. It’s harder to lose a label attached to a body when that label is a tattoo (or a brand) than it is too lose such a label if that label is only attached by a thread. In the second instance, given a good snip from a pair of scissors, who would ever know?