In last week’s caregiving article, I wrote about The Diagnosis and mentioned stigma. Stigma came up in the comments, too. It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while, but I’m aware that it is something encountered in so many different ways.
For us, though, stigma comes into our lives in two ways: direct and indirect. Direct stigma is the person who sees Mr. Juniper, does their best impression of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and shouts, “Freak! Freak!” Indirect stigma is the picture of Edvard Munch’s The Scream printed in the newspaper alongside the caption, “Freaks! Freaks!” and perhaps, “Run for the hills!” thrown in, too, for good measure.
To be fair, there has yet to be a person who shouts, “Freak! Freak!” at Mr. Juniper. This may, in part, be because a person in that position would generally be considered to have a death wish at the moment of shouting–Mr. Juniper is built like a proverbial brick house and obscenely strong. What that person may not know (and quite possibly wouldn’t be in a conscious state afterward to learn) is that their hurling of abuse is simply at the more vocal end of the spectrum that a lot of mentally ill people have to endure.
But it’s all a part of the stigma surrounding mental illness. It presents itself in discrimination, in abuse, in the simple lack of respect for fellow human beings. And while the person stirs from their unconscious state after shouting “Freak! Freak!” at Mr. Juniper, I wonder what version of events they would tell others. That they in actual fact stumbled back in shock, and fell, having seen the proverbial brick house crumble into an emotional ruin upon hearing “Freak! Freak!”? That’s the cost of stigma. The twerp shouting obscenities gets over their concussion, but Mr. Juniper is left with the aftermath of the attack. Probably won’t ever recover completely, and will always flinch a little whenever he hears, “Freak!”
As I’ve said, there has yet to be a person shout, “Freak! Freak!” But there have been many instances in which Mr. Juniper has encountered stigma and as a result, been left scarred by the experience. In day-to-day life, Mr. Juniper avoids direct stigma much of the time. He is able to cover up the visible consequences of his condition and as such, there isn’t cause for people to flex their ignorance around him. Come warmer weather (don’t laugh, it does happen occasionally in Scotland), Mr. Juniper does struggle over whether or not to wear short sleeves. He gets grumpy and looks out the window with utter contempt. Eventually he will put on a short-sleeved top, before thinking it does look a little chilly out there and putting on another layer. There is a rule of sorts that we have, but it is with good reason, that he wear long sleeves if joins me for the walk to school with Juniper Junior. Otherwise, all I can do is reassure him that it’s okay, whatever he chooses. I know why he worries, though. It isn’t a case of people looking. We’re human, if something is different in our environment, we’re likely to look. It’s when curiosity makes the jump to harm, to stare, gasp and whisper to those around.
I forget the quote, but it goes something along the lines of “ignorance is the mother of fear.” That’s the path stigma often takes, with a few detours along the way. There are those who don’t know about mental illness and often don’t care to educate themselves. They see Mr. Juniper’s scars, see that he’s harmed himself and from that, extract the assumption that he must be violent to others, even though self harm, by its nature, is something a person does to themselves. And so, before you know it, they’ve got their pitchforks and torches out.
What some people may be surprised to learn is the existence of stigma among health professionals, whether they be doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, or therapists. Even with decades of training behind them, there are highly qualified mental health professionals who consider people with mental illnesses to be freaks. We are very fortunate that where we are, Mr. Juniper is surrounded by fantastic professionals. But it isn’t always perfect. When Mr. Juniper has needed treatment at a hospital for, to put it delicately, the ingestion of things which should not be ingested in such quantity and other less health-orientated activities, he has encountered stigma. It surfaces in comments like, “Well, that was a silly thing to do, wasn’t it?” Do they actually expect Mr. Juniper to say, “Well, I was bored and Mrs. Juniper wouldn’t put out”? What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s okay not to understand. What is not okay is to let that lack of knowledge justify behavior that is harmful. There is much that our preschooler doesn’t understand, but he has known for a long time that it is not okay to hurt someone.
There is then the indirect stigma. It comes from articles in newspapers and on the internet. It comes from television and films. It comes from books and magazines. It’s often the reinforcement of myths and misconceptions. It’s also the reinforcement of derogatory terms that in turn reinforces myths and misconceptions. And there is also the damage that comes from the conflation of two separate factors.
On the conflation front, there is the frequent “psycho killer” idea. It often serves to reinforce the misconception that someone who is mentally ill and someone who is violent are one and the same. Sure, there will be violent people who are mentally ill. But the only violence most people who are mentally ill will commit is against themselves. Then there are, of course, people who are mentally ill and haven’t ever physically harmed themselves or others. Indeed, a person who is mentally ill is more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator. To drift back the psycho killer, a lot of indirect stigma also encourages the idea that mental illness and violence whisper sweet nothings to each other, and that in turn, people stop fearing the “psycho killer” and simply fear the “psycho”.
Stigma also serves to reduce a person with mental illness to their illness, taking away what makes them human. Human beings suffer from mental illness, it is not mental illness suffering from a case of being human. I remember in one discussion being asked why I married Mr. Juniper since he was mentally ill. My stuttering answer was, “Because I love him?” From the smallest snigger at scars to the acts of violence against mentally ill people, stigma reinforces the archaic ideas that mental illness is simply a monster inhabiting the human form.
And so it comes to dealing with stigma. There is another quote which I am, I think, about to dreadfully misquote: “Children are the best philosophers.” As it happens, the parents of young children have some neat ideas, too. The basic concept of praise the good and ignore the bad can work well with stigma. It may not always be the solution, but it’s an option. Then there is trying to combat stigma. In the case of the media, complaints can be lodged with the appropriate ombudsman. It is also good reason to contact mental health charities. People need to talk about stigma in order for it to begin to lose its power. Then there are the simple acts, like sharing information through channels like Facebook. It may be a plea for others to complain about a specific article, it may be to raise awareness, it may be to share information on mental illness.
Stigma doesn’t usually allow for exceptions. Stigma likes splitting: us against them, freak versus normal. But perhaps it’s stigma that’s the freak. The psycho killer. It seeks to put ignorance and myth before knowledge and often revels in malice. It echoes in the shouts of “Jump!” that people direct toward those clinging to their window ledges.