We hear a lot of talk these days about ‘stigma’ around mental health issues. But what does this mean?
It means you have to be awfully courageous to admit out loud – for example – that you are depressed (especially now that the psychiatric industry has claimed it as an official ‘mental illness’). There are social and economic costs to taking such a step not to mention the potential for falling into an Alice’s rabbit hole of un-anticipated nightmares which could in turn lead to even greater stigma.
First, peoples’ beliefs fly into action. Friends, relatives, or neighbours may suddenly feel nervous around you, treat you ‘with kid gloves’, think of you as somehow born weak or flawed. They are stigmatizing you.
There was an ‘anti-stigma’ conference in Ottawa recently – a result of increasing awareness of how serious the problem can be. Karyn Baker, Executive Director of Toronto’s Family Outreach and Response Program, was one of the speakers. She said,
“A 2004 survey of discrimination against people with experience of mental unwellness in New Zealand showed that more people reported discrimination occurring from their friends and family than any other source.”
One can only imagine how much this would add to the pain of the individual who is already distressed. And obviously the root problem, is ignorance.
Gerard Kennedy, who ran for the Liberal Party of Canada in Parkdale-High Park, has been promoting the idea of a “Stigma-free zone” for the riding. As part of this campaign, he held a related event this weekend at The Revue theatre, a community-run movie theatre in Roncesvalles Village. I’ve now been to three of his events, and much as I find them always interesting, I fail to see them moving us to stigma-free living any time soon. As far as I can see, his events do little to change ignorance about mental illness into knowledge about mental illness.
Which gets me into my usual rant: I believe we are hugely under-educating people. We still have such an underlying obsession with stress-free education that, in my view, we essentially have our children playing their way through school.
People usually roll their eyes at this point in the conversation. And before you do that, let me do a quick summary of what I believe.
We ‘threw out the baby with the bathwater’ when we reduced testing, structure, memorizing, grades, and directive teaching and didn’t replace them with newer better concepts. We could have made better decisions about how to reduce stress for students. What we should have thrown out instead was the critical-judgmental attitude of parents and teachers toward “low grades”, and instead instituted a completely new, inter-active ‘feedback’ orientation to education, with the student doing much self-direction. An all-new approach to teaching could have much better educated teachers who could inspire, stimulate and motivate – instead of authoritarian imposition. Imagine the difference.
I believe that most children easily have the potential to be good readers and have great basic math by nine or ten years of age. By this same age, they could have the beginnings of ‘critical thinking skills’ – and by age 12, could have excellent social skills including a great understanding about feelings, self-confidence, communication, and so on.
And what better time than adolescence to learn about emotional needs, elementary psychology, relationship skills, the spectrum of ‘differences’ and states of distress like depression? The fact that invisible mental states – like the possibly 10% who ‘hear voices’ (or other auditory hallucinations) – are not talked about is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. In other words, the less we talk about them, the less we talk about them. The result when they do surface: stigma.
Imagine a class of 12-year olds having a discussion with an articulate, knowledgeable ‘voice-hearer’ who has just spoken to them on the subject. Perhaps during a weekly afternoon on ‘Society’.
Fast forward to my Utopia – and imagine an appropriately educated 16-year-old saying to his friend, “Want to talk about it?” Imagine a 17-year-old girl asking her friend, “…and what are your voices saying?”
Now that would be a lot closer to ‘stigma-free’. Dream on, Fearless.