Outcast. Bi-Polar. Crazy. Schizo. Anti-social. Disabled. Broken. Delusional.
How powerful. And equally sinister.
It’s no wonder that we call the act of constructing words SPELL-ing.
Language is truly a spell – an incantation that controls virtually every aspect of life, from media to politics to everyday interactions.
The world of mental health is no exception; it seems to be suffering the same illness as the rest of modern society, but perhaps with more damaging outcomes.
It’s not common for us to think about how mental health labels are often used as a weapon against a person who’s struggling just to feel some semblance of okayness in their life. Though these labels were originally meant to help us understand a person’s illness or condition, it also has the potential to cause more harm.
This is why it’s particularly important to carefully craft the language around mental health so it doesn’t further harm the people that need the most help.
We have to responsibly observe the powerful (and often distorted) way we use words like disorder, illness, or pathology, and understand the far-reaching effects these labels can have for the duration of an entire life. This is especially true when a person’s diagnosis or mental health history is used to justify excessive medication intake, unnecessarily prolonged hospitalization, or social rejection.
These are Catch-22’s that are far too evident in the traditional healing world, and they can keep the person in need stuck in the quicksand of institutions, over-worked systems, or community programs that rarely support their highest wellbeing.
Mental health labels, especially when outdated or misdiagnosed, can negatively shape a person’s behavior and emotions. For instance, the person may falsely believe that her entire identity and experience is attached to her mental health disorder, even if that diagnosis occurred many years ago and her symptoms no longer reflect her mental health label.
These nefarious labels are also attached to stigma that contributes to social outcasting, learned helplessness, and further isolation for people struggling with any kind of emotional or mental imbalance.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, that number is staggeringly high: 1 in 5 Americans are affected by mental illness each year.
But how often do we seek help when we believe “the help” we seek will actually harm us more?
Research shows that mental health labels can act as social and emotional barriers for people that need the most help. Ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination often plague the ones that need the most care, further adding to the cycle of separation, loneliness, anxiety, and despair.
This same study also shows that the best medicine for this is direct social contact, which has the power to close the gap created through misunderstanding, isolation, and pain. Turns out, acts of simple connection and kindness still reign supreme when it comes to repairing the human condition.
To be fair, this is not to say that mental health labels and diagnoses are completely without value. Categorization of behavior and phenomena is something that humans naturally do in order to better understand and interact with the world. The danger, however, is in the way we allow these labels to determine how we treat an entire group of people.
These labels are often solidified as an inescapable part of a person’s identity, even when that person no longer shows symptoms of that particular disorder.
For example, a person may have had a rough and weird period in her life where she had symptoms of paranoia and anxiety for a few weeks. That person seeks help from a professional, and may be mis-diagnosed with the obscure label of Psychotic Disorder, not otherwise specified. And now she believes that’s who she is, has, and always will be, even when her symptoms go away.
Our society makes little effort to ameliorate this. “An ‘addict’ will always be an addict.” A convicted felon turns to crime again as his social nametag prevents him from earning a livable wage. A person labeled “antisocial” will always be seen as doing something abnormal, even when displaying the most trivial, everyday behavior.
A simple shift in perspective could be the salve we need for this collective wound. Perhaps we incorporate more compassionate language for the individuals that society has largely failed. Indeed, how could there be healing when all we’re doing is thickening the social lines through our disparaging labels?
It’s more important than ever to allow room for mistakes and healing, for pain and resilience, and to carry that intention in the way we think, talk about, and treat mental health.
Another way to think about this is to treat each person’s experience as if it were on a continuum. This means that we honor the vastly different ways each person shows up in the world within the paradigm between good and bad. People are not machines, nor are they just one thing. We are infinitely diverse and complex – an organism with a wide spectrum of emotional, cognitive, and spiritual states.
It’s important to note that this is NOT the same thing as condoning harmful ideas or behaviors…it simply means we learn to have compassion for what people went through. Indeed, we all carry an invisible story that no one else knows.
Everything we know about a person is based on a combination of our intuition, education, and experiences. But nothing we believe stays the same forever. All our knowledge about a person, including our beliefs about her at any given moment, is constantly subject to change.
It makes little sense, then, to be rigidly attached to a particular word or label for a person, even if that word or label has helped us understand her behavior in the past. If we can shift our focus from “fixing the problem” to “understanding the person with the problem”, it might help lift the damaging spell we have placed on others, and ultimately ourselves.
After all, how can we treat something that we do not fully understand?
A person with a psychological “disorder” merely reflects how much we know or don’t know about ourselves. As we interact with those we deem crazy or different, we are learning about the dark nooks of our own psyche.
These are the same shadows in our soul that we so eagerly try to dismiss out of fear, trauma, or deep misunderstanding. As it remains, every thought and behavior we see in others is but a reflection of our own humanness…
No behavior should feel so foreign that it forever alienates another person from us. It’s true that safety is of utmost importance, and we must protect ourselves from harmful ideas and behaviors. At times, this requires separation. And yes, we need to keep violence and harm away from our families and children, from ourselves.
But in the midst of this process, we must also find the parts of us that we share with even those we deem especially different, or even psychotic. We can always choose to find the compassion lying beneath our own fear and trauma – the same ones that get triggered when we encounter another suffering person.
We can shape our language to create a culture that really understands and cares for mental health issues. Each individual is but a byproduct of the society we’ve together created. And together we can also undo the things that no longer work for us.
Could we see ‘the other’ deep within ourselves? Could we not be so quick to judge based upon a label, diagnosis, or our own limited beliefs?
May we make room in our hearts to learn, grow, and appreciate the marvelous task given to us – the one that asks us to look within to understand even the darkest corners of another person – and use that awareness to create healing through our words and actions.
Sending love to All.