Stigma is the real sickness when it comes to mental health

A couple of days ago I posted a piece about parenting and attachment. As it turns out it has been my most-shared piece to date – which is encouraging to know that people actually care about such things. But it was also pretty contentious with certain individuals, prompting a very vitriolic reaction from one in particular.

Now, I won’t go into his tirade in this piece, because firstly it was reactionary and he was emotionally invested in the subject matter, which, however misguided, I get; and secondly, this piece isn’t about him. But what did strike me in the torrent of abuse he spewed all over social media is the form his insults took.

It is one thing disagreeing with a person, or even disliking them, and I am always up for informed, rational debate, but when you begin to say things like “your family would’ve loved you if you weren’t a lunatic”, or you start ridiculing a person and calling them “a crazy” and “a monster”, well then you are straying into a whole other territory.

Because phrases like these are the discourse of stigma and shame, what they do is take a person’s disability and make it their identity. Defining them by a stereotype, reducing them to the status of ‘other’, and invalidating what they are saying by implying their credibility is questionable on account of their “craziness”.

Calling a person with a mental illness a ‘lunatic’ or a ‘nutter’ is as offensive as the ‘n-word’ is to the black community, because it dehumanises and marginalises an already invisible group. In this instance it was actually explicitly stated that being a “lunatic” makes one unworthy of love.

When it comes to physical health we have become much better at respecting diversity, I wonder would this person have slurred me with “fucking cripple” if, say, my limbs didn’t work. I don’t think so actually, because that would be so outrageously offensive that it would make one think twice about using a physical ailment as a form of abuse.

And, given that the forum was social media, it would be open to mass-judgement. And no matter how much people protest they don’t care, generally they do, they don’t like to be judged or viewed as bigoted or prejudiced. So they tend to choose their words carefully. Except when it comes to mental health…

Because seemingly it is perfectly fine to use outdated and derogatory terms when addressing someone with a mental illness. People do it every day when they bandy around terms like ‘schizo’ or ‘psycho’ or ‘nutter,’ but the thing is words aren’t just words. Words hold meaning. Language has power. And once terms become commonplace they enter into everyday discourse with all the derogatory connotations attached.

In 2012 the term ‘lunatic’ was deemed so offensive that it was struck from US federal law by the 21st Century Language Act (2012), “the continued use of this pejorative term has no place in the US Code” Senator Conrad, who proposed the bill, told the Senate Floor.

In an article examining usage of the word for the BBC medical historian Gerald Grob, an emeritus professor at Rutgers University, described the term ‘lunatic’ as having a “sordid and hateful association”, whilst Professor Patrick Corrigan, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Psychology described the word as connoting “danger, wildness and unpredictability”.

Earlier this year in the UK Labour MP Owen Smith came under fire from mental health charities when, whilst contesting the Labour Party leadership, he described his rival Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic”, it may have been a throwaway comment, but actually what Smith was doing was casting aspersions on Corbyn’s competence.

And this is why language has power. Because when people use terms associated with mental illness as an insult, what they are doing is reinforcing deeply damaging stereotypes, implying that mental ill health denotes danger, chaos, ineptitude, evil, even (as my blog-post comments thread is testament to) calling into question a person’s very humanity by throwing taunts like “monster” around.

And the problem with this is so many people living with mental health problems struggle to have a voice in the first place, that it makes self-advocacy just another mountain to climb, and self-efficacy ever more remote. And sometimes the nature of their condition dictates that people can’t speak up for themselves in a lucid enough way even if they wanted to– for example it would be very difficult for a person deep in throes of psychosis to explain why being called a “psycho” is offensive.

Oftentimes it leads people to “self-stigmatise”, internalising these negative representations as their own inner voice, associating mental ill-health with shame and embarrassment, so even when well many are reluctant to speak up for fear of being ostracised or excluded. For fear of being judged. This worsens outcomes, because the more socially isolated a person becomes, the bigger the deficit in social capital, the bleaker the prospects for recovery. And we already know that social isolation is one of the biggest risk factors for relapse.

As a society we have come a long way with embracing diversity in some ways, the LGBT community have proven how powerful being heard can be, how having a voice can be transformative. How collective action actually can educate and empower. And we have come a long way in how we view race and gender (though the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement tells us there is still much more ground to cover), but when it comes to mental health we aren’t even close.

So, here’s the thing, calling someone a ‘psycho’ or a ‘nutter’ or a ‘lunatic’ is not cool. Never. Ever. Not even if they’ve really pissed you off. Not even if you hate them. Using someone’s severe and enduring mental condition as a stick to beat them with is never acceptable, any more than it would be to use their race, or gender, or sexuality. What that is, is bigotry and prejudice, what it does is perpetuate misunderstanding and marginalisation. And it insults every single other person who lives with a condition they have no choice over.

I haven’t removed the comments made on my Facebook thread, some people suggested I should out of concern, and I thought about it for a little while, but then I decided I’d just leave them. Because they are a powerful indictment of how far we have to go when it comes to mental health, and of how ignorance still has too much of a voice on public platforms. They are an illustration of how uneducated too many people still are, and being uninformed isn’t my shame, so I refuse to hold it by removing hate speech I did not write. It is not mine to own. I’m not touching that shit, because quite frankly, it stinks.

© Laury Jeanneret, 2016.

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