From my in-progress book on mental illness …
It’s hard for me to say that there has been progress with mental health and understanding mental illness. Ultimately, I concede that, at least objectively, we seem to have gotten better, but I still think that we have a long ways to go. The stigmas about mental illness and regarding mental illness are still alive and well.
I could start with the easy stuff, but I don’t think it would add much to the discussion, because it’s such a tired point. But I will say in passing that it’s destructive that “mental illness” and that specific term saturate the media and saturate our culture, and in the context of violence, with crimes committed. This is very destructive, because it conditions us to automatically associate mental illness with violence: So if a man shoots up a school, it must be mental illness and nothing else, which we therefore use to derive that all people with mental illness are dangerous psychopaths: Dangerous thinking, fallacious at the very least (the premises do not follow), and destructive to a healthy discussion. Also, people with a mental illness are seen as being deficient in mental capacity, and this is not a fair characterization of how mental illness works: We aren’t stupid, in other words.
To move on and carry on the discussion: I can certainly speak from experience regarding stigmatization. I have tried to explain to people in mental health that I want to succeed in life, and I want to chase my dreams. I have told that to friends as well. And while I do chase my dreams, work hard at it every day in fact, I understand that my mental illness holds me back, specifically the stigma and the social constructs that exist, the overarching power structures in place.
What do I mean by this? I mean that when people know I have a mental illness, unless they are compassionate and empathetic, they treat me differently, which blocks me off from all kinds of opportunities and chances. Usually, my mental illness means I am incapable. This has been reinforced in subtle and not so subtle ways for so long that I simply take it for granted, and I’m so jaded that it will change I don’t even consider it an important point to bring home any more.
What I do consider an important point is that my circumstances, specifically regarding the consequences of having a mental illness, have prevented me from succeeding. Society is already very demanding on people, and usually don’t care if circumstances are troubling for you and preventing you from doing what you need to do to take care of yourself or, God forbid, have a happy and flourishing life. This is true if you have a mental illness as well, because you are slowly funneled into a circumstance or a series of circumstances that prevent you from doing what any “normal, functioning” human could do.
How can I expand on this notion of circumstance? What is it about my circumstance that is preventing me from making it in the world, and having the life I desire for myself? Well, I’ll start by describing how people usually do not talk to me, but how one person did: He believed that I could achieve many things despite my illness, from getting a girlfriend to getting further schooling. But, as I found out later, this is a rare thing for someone to say, whether in mental health or elsewhere: The system is designed to keep you sick. Instead of being rewarded for trying to make your life something (my many books and my extensive writing, for instance, as well as my humanitarian work), you are punished: This work isn’t seen as valuable or even constructive, and is in fact marginalized and insulted. I once had, in fact, a prescriber tell me that my hard work on my writing was a sign of mania, which he immediately wanted to treat for: He went further, and ultimately demeaned my hard work. And yet if someone who wasn’t funneled into the system was seen as doing the same work, they would be rewarded and praised.
I know this phenomenon actually exists (of the double standard regarding one’s capability): Women are and have, for instance, been demeaned and seen as being less capable than men: Standard sexism. It’s the same thing with those of another race. Those who suffer from a mental illness fall in the same category. If you have a mental illness, it means you are mentally incapacitated, and cannot succeed. This just simply isn’t true, though. What needs to happen, is our struggles are humanized and empathized with, and not seen as “mere disability” and “mere sickness.” It’s seen as integral to our experience, and an extra hurdle we have to go through, but something that can ultimately be accomplished. The problem with this attitude, I will note quickly, though, is that our struggles are then seen as non-existent, which just leads to further problems. You can see how we quickly go around and around with how to treat the mentally ill.
But stigmas go further than how we treat the mentally ill and how we view their capabilities, and what circumstances we funnel them into. Just talking about mental illness is a nightmare, because there is so much stigma and misunderstanding. If you can’t talk about mental illness in general, good luck expressing yourself when you’re struggling mentally.
I have experienced this time and time again. I understand my viewpoint is irrational and biased, in that I have been conditioned to expect negative responses when I talk about my struggles, whether in the moment or after the fact. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that I’m always wrong with my observations. I can’t tell you how many times I casually talk about my struggles with mental health, and how easily I’m dismissed. There are so many reasons for this: Either because it makes the person uncomfortable, because it doesn’t warrant discussion and is a form of whining/moaning, because it’s not physical pain and is therefore irrelevant, because it’s attention-seeking: Take your pick, there are many, etc.
So, the trick for me, has been to literally learn how to talk about mental illness (without actually talking about it). I believe really strongly in free speech, and more importantly, healthy expression. This is why I write so much. But conversations are harder to navigate. My impression is many people don’t want to talk about mental health and mental illness. I have learned that if I so much as acknowledge I’m struggling mentally, the conversation shuts down and devolves into chaos, or at least an unproductive conversation. The hard part is that I have learned to not really talk about it, except by using vague expressions, subliminal phrases, and subtle cues, but that my behavior is basically there for all to see and judge. In other words, I could manage to at least talk normal, but if my behavior is off, people notice this, and draw attention to it (which they wouldn’t do if they knew I didn’t have a mental condition) … and yet, usually aren’t there to help you through it, once they’ve picked up you’re struggling mentally.
Everything I’m saying, it’s not hard and fast. It’s not definitive. It is one person’s experience. These are not universals, then. Nonetheless, I think the stigma is real. I have tried to provide evidence for my claims, and I have also tried to show why it’s difficult to have a mental illness, mainly in this essay, because of stigma. But it’s obvious that talking about mental health is not easy because there are so many misconceptions surrounding it. So many people have no idea how often they have triggered me into a manic and/or psychotic break, just by treating me differently once they notice my behavior is off. This is why I’ve learned to justify my behavior as not falling outside any social norm, because to not do so would bring unnecessary attention to what are harmless behaviors. This includes talking to myself in public, not making eye contact when I’m afraid (literally paranoid), talking about things that don’t follow logically, among other things.
So the best way I can understand stigma, is by understanding that I can’t fucking talk about my mental health. At least not generally. I can write about it, though, and express with necessary feeling, and that gives me hope. And occasionally, I can talk about it with caring people who do their best to understand. But as I see it, mental illness is simply an altered state of consciousness, and while it does bring certain problems, it is still a different way of viewing the world and should not be invalidated, criticized, and insulted. It should be assimilated. I’ve made similar claims before, and there’s a reason for that: You can’t resist someone’s mind. You can try to condition it, control it, and even force it, but you can’t resist it, ultimately. This is because you can’t take away someone’s mind. The mind is one of the biggest mysteries that humans have yet to uncover, and even if you’re a materialist, do you really “own” someone’s brain? That sounds ridiculous. You don’t. And this, I would say, is one of the biggest pitfalls with how we talk about the mind and specifically, mental illness and mental health: If we don’t have an adequate theory of mind to start with, we can’t just go making blind assumptions and act discriminatorily. Mental illness all rests on a sound theory of mind, not on social prejudice and custom. Psychiatry is not the final word on the mind or someone’s mind for these reasons precisely. And neither is society. The only person that can ultimately know what to do with their mind is the individual. This is the arrogance of modern psychiatry and society: They assume they know your mind just because of the way you talk and the way you act (seeming behaviorists, then): But they ultimately don’t have access to the qualitative: They don’t have access to your subjective experience. While Wittgenstein would argue that our minds are partially public, through our use of language, I would have to respond by saying this view eliminates the emphasis on the mind as private, as Descartes would have it, with placing the emphasis on the private experience of the mind, which then means that because you speak a certain way or act a certain way, the “objective” says more and means more than your subjective reality. This, I argue, is a form of oppression, and is in fact standard in how we treat the mentally ill.
Anyway, all of this is a general way of saying: Stigmas don’t make logical sense, stigmas of any type, and in this case, as regards mental illness. Stigmas just blind us from the truth.
I hope this changes through time.