Monday, April 3, 2017

Stigma of Mental Illness- Based on Fact or Fiction?

From the Merriam Webster Dictionary

Definition of stigma



play\stig-ˈmä-tə, ˈstig-mə-tə\ or 


  1. 1a archaic :  a scar left by a hot iron :  brandb :  a mark of shame or discredit :  stain bore the stigma of cowardicec :  an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically :  a specific diagnostic sign of a disease

People can and do make negative judgments about others who have mental health diagnoses.

But, is it warranted? Well, in my experience, it's complicated.

The biggest issue I have run into is that I am treated like a textbook diagnosis list from the DSM-5 when I admit any of my diagnoses.

Why is that a problem? I have been diagnosed as having it, so they should be allowed to jump to that idea, right?

Well, no. I do not think the same way, or behave the same way as an untreated freshly diagnosed person with the same condition. 

Also, most illnesses in the DSM-5 only require a certain number of characteristics from a list to be present for diagnosis. That means you could meet 2 people with the exact same mental health label, who present their symptoms slightly differently even before treatment begins. 

There is also the level of severity to consider. One person's symptoms may be mild enough that it isn't usually noticed, another person's symptoms may be so intense and observable that it draws attention.

Think about this: Should a person who isn't currently following their treatment plan, or a person who refuses treatment be judged equal to a person who has followed through on every level of treatment and has been given the (at least temporary) status by their mental health team of "stable"?

How about treating someone who has had little to no symptoms for over a year the same as someone who has extreme symptoms that interfere with their ability to function at a normal level without supervision or assistance?

What if it was a physical illness? Say a person diagnosed with the flu hasn't had any medication and has obvious symptoms wants to take care of your child, would or should their request be treated the same as someone who was diagnosed with the flu 2 weeks ago, got treatment and is symptom free wanting to do the same?

That's the basic problem I have with the stigma attached to mental health issues, but that's not the worst part of it.

What's worse is the implication that having a mental illness is something to be ashamed of, like it's your fault. That's what is so insidious and harmful about allowing people to label and dismiss or punish people who need help.

It makes some people hide. It makes some people not ask for help until things are dire. It makes some people stop taking their medications. It makes some people desperate. It causes unnecessary pain and suffering.

Are there people with certain issues that would indicate a need for caution when interacting with them? Of course! And not all of those people have a mental health diagnosis to give you a heads up. 

If you have to judge someone, use the information in front of you. Evaluate their behavior you have seen. If you don't know for sure what their personal symptoms are, try asking. With compassion and the goal of understanding, or even better, to help them.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Life in These United States - I feel less safe

My perspective

I am no stranger to stigma and bias. I have mental health issues. I have tattoos and piercings. I have lived below the poverty line during most of the phases of my life. I was a high school drop out. I had children out of wedlock, the first at a young age. I have close family members who deal with prejudice because of their race, and others because of sexual orientation- and by association, I do too.

It's not new. It's been a part of the fabric of this nation of diversity since the beginning. Repeatedly.

I have had experiences dealing with people who do not have my or those I care about's interests or needs in mind when voting or otherwise in control of making decisions that effect everyone. It's been difficult and I thought our nation was moving towards Inclusiveness and Tolerance.

But now is a scarier time. Words that would have been muttered behind my back, or out of earshot with like minded people are now shouted. Certain groups of people feel comfortable being disrespectful in public now. Some insulting people or refusing to serve them, some threatening or even attacking people.

These things were happening here and there before current events on a small scale. The difference is that these people have found champions. Role models. Certain leaders, politicians, or celebrities have shown in words and deeds that these behaviors are acceptable, or even ideals to strive for. There has been a shift.

In some ways I am lucky

I have privilege. I am white, middle aged, straight. I prefer what would be business casual type clothes. In certain ways these things protect me from being a target, but it also means some people feel free to comment negatively about groups I or people I care about belong to like I agree or accept their beliefs. And it is happening more frequently.

In some ways I am a target

My appearance choices have caused difficulty in the past, but if I cover my tattoos or wear a hat, I blend in. I prefer my hair extremely short and I like to dye it vibrant colors. I also have a squarish jawline and very broad shoulders for a woman. I don't wear make-up.

Last week I was mistaken as transgender and threatened. I was upset not only at being mislabeled, but for the treatment that no one should have to go through. 

What happened

At the store I went to use the restroom, and a man stepped in front of me and wouldn't let me pass. I was confused and said "Excuse me." He said "There's no excuse for YOUR kind." 
I was shocked and confused. I said, "What?" and tried to go around him. He blocked me again and put a hand on my upper chest/shoulder. "Where do you think you're going? My daughter's in there, you fucking freak. I suggest you just hold it till you get home unless you want me to bust up your face."

I turned and headed straight to customer service, shaken up and upset and scared. I started crying with the clerk there, and she got a manager. He didn't seem to believe it could happen here, or that anyone would think I was, in the manager's words, a "Man in Drag". I must have misunderstood the guy or something. But he offered to get an employee to escort me out to my vehicle. I accepted because I really didn't want to risk a run in alone in the parking lot with ANYONE. 

The most troubling thing happened on the way out. I thanked the employee walking me out to my car, and admitted I was scared by the whole experience. He replied that I might want to rethink my style then, or just get used to it. That looking the way I do was just asking for it.

"The way I do?"
"Yeah, well. The hair? Guy cut with the rainbow? Look like a freak, get treated like a freak."

Get used to it...

I guess it is acceptable to mistreat people based on assumptions you make about their appearance now? 

And the bigger alarm that went off was, people who actually ARE a part of this group should expect this as normal?

The message I got was that marginalized people now need to hide or know their place. The manager's message, whether intended or not, was that no one will believe them even if they do speak up.

The escorts words instructing me to change my appearance; to hide, or get used to it.

My thoughts

I am heart broken. I am angry. I am frustrated.

Not just for myself, but for every marginalized group out there right now facing these things. Every day there is another news article. Every day another person feels righteous enough in their fear and hate to lash out at another human being. 

This is such a big deal.
It is creating so much suffering. Not only for those who happen to have a certain label, but their loved ones and anyone unlucky enough to be caught up in it by chance due to a similarity in appearance.

I almost didn't post this.

I didn't feel I deserved a spotlight on my experience. I am NOT transgender. I was NOT physically harmed. I felt I had no right to speak.

And then this week 2 men who were from India were shot by a man that seemed to believe they were either middle eastern or immigrants. The details are still being gathered, but witnesses have confirmed the words he yelled. 

This is happening. Everywhere.

How many stories like mine are out there, unheard because only the most violent make the news?
How many are out there about people who do identify with one of the target groups who are silenced out of fear, or swept aside by people of privilege who agree with the hate?

If you or someone you love has faced anything like this, or fears you will...

I just want you to know you are not alone. And IT'S NOT OKAY. And I will stand by you, with you, or for you.


Especially for those who don't have one at all.
Until I can't anymore.