By Andrew Dwyer MSW LCSW and Erica Mesnard, Ph.D (Licensed Psychologist)
Mental health is a complex subject. 46% of people will meet criteria for a mental illness within their lifetime. With a population that large, there is bound to be variability among cases. But what all mentally ill people have in common is the right to be viewed as complete people rather than as broken ones.
There is a stigma attached to being mentally ill. Professional therapists work to lessen the effect of that stigma, but we ourselves reinforce it because we must assign clients disorders to bill their insurance. And no one can deny that mental illness often impairs a person’s vocational, social, and domestic functioning. The question is, “how much responsibility does everyone else have to help a person who is mentally ill?” How many people with autism and ADHD have the potential to live much more “orderly” lives if only the world around them was more open to their differences? In other words, we who are neurodivergent are disordered largely because we live in a culture that is inflexible when it comes to what it expects people should do.
Clients themselves often buy into the idea that they are the people solely responsible for making accommodation. So many of our clients come in asking to be “fixed” or to “fix” their spouse. And we clinicians may not help things by describing clients reacting to impossible situations as having “behaviors.” One could argue that people with the most extreme mental health issues are also the most vulnerable to stigma because their actions make them easier to dismiss. Those with severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder make up about four percent of the population. Twelve million Americans is a lot to dismiss.
Stigma is a big part of the problem, and we can begin to address it by becoming more compassionate. For example, everyone probably knows a child who has been labeled as lazy. Often the child is waging a secret war with anxiety. The expectations placed on them by parents, educators, and peers can make them freeze when they most need to act. Mental health professionals can help unfreeze such children.
Helping these and other people with mental illnesses summon the courage to share experiences is an excellent start to reducing stigma. It brings the common experience of mental illness into the light. If we are part of that other 54% that doesn’t experience mental illness, we can start with person-centered language. Talking about a “person with schizophrenia” is much more compassionate than talking about a “schizophrenic.” We must try to remain as fully present and open as possible. First, we fix our language; then, we adjust or eliminate our judgments. If we live in a culture or social structure that is insensitive to each other’s needs, we must become more compassionate in response.