Taking the Stigma out of Mental Illness
By: Beth McHugh 2006
All of us are mentally ill.
You might find the above statement difficult to believe, but it’s true. We may not all fit into a textbook category for a particular illness, but whether we are aware of it or not, we all have our individual quirks— that’s what makes us human. And the best way to remove the stigma that is associated with mental illness is to see that we all have more in common with each other than we may like to imagine. And that includes the area of mental illness.
Like physical illness, mental illness is very common. In fact, more hospital beds are occupied by people who are emotionally ill than by those with physical ailments. And in every suburban doctor’s office, there are more patients with emotionally-induced illnesses than exclusively physical ones. Of course, the patient may not recognize that their symptoms are of emotional origin, and at times, either will the doctor. But many ailments have an emotional component whether we like to accept it or not.
There’s no such thing as “normal”!
All abnormal behavior, which we would call “mentally ill”, is found to some extent in every one of us. There is a sliding scale of human behaviors, and once a person passes a particular point, we may classify them as having an emotional problem. Hence someone who is very clean and neat may be regarded by their friends as just that—clean and neat. Taken to an extreme, we may consider that behavior to bear the hallmarks of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, where the need for neatness is greater than usual. Of course, when that same behavior begins to interfere with everyday life, we would admit that the person then suffers from a mental illness. Yet it is all the same behavior, just amplified in some people. There still exists a common link.
Many famous sportspeople have been known to be superstitious about which underpants they wear or which object they carry in their pocket during an important game. Rationally, we all know this is nonsense, the player included. But the player derives a sense of “luck” from carrying or wearing this object. It’s called “magical thinking”. Yet we would hardly label them as “mad”. People suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder also display similar behavior, albeit on a greater scale to our sportsperson. They may believe, for example, that because they missed saying goodbye to their spouse that morning, and their spouse was killed in an accident that day, it was their fault. This is irrational thinking, too, and when this way of thinking is taken to an extreme, the person may be tagged with an official psychiatric label. But again, there is a common connection between all people. We are much more alike than unalike.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to mental illness, predominantly because of the perceived threat of violence associated with persons suffering from severe mental disorders. It is true that mentally ill people have committed violent acts, but the statistics clearly show that the vast majority of crime is committed by so-called “sane” people. If you want to hedge your bets in a choice of dark alleyways, the alleyway with the mentally-ill person is by far the safest one.
So when you next have an opportunity to relate to a person suffering from emotional problems, take advantage of it. You will discover that you have much more in common with them than you might have previously thought. Doing so will promote greater understanding of those suffering from mental illness, and actually assist in their recovery. As many a mentally ill person has reported: The worst thing about being mentally ill is not the illness, it is the way we are treated by others because of it.
Remember, none of us is “normal”. As Whoopi Goldberg once
said: Normal is just a cycle on the washing machine!