In this blog Xin takes a look at how a mental health label can impact on you and how others perceive you, sometimes this can be helpful, and other times we have to take a moment to look beyond the label given.
I recently wrote a blog article on the power language has of shaping the world. But Iād like to have a closer look at a more specific way that people can unwittingly limit other human beings, or worse, themselves.
In the very first verse of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says that if you can name something, you limit it in the naming. For example, if I think of someone as a ācleanerā, thatās all Iāll ever see them as. Yes, they clean things, but Iām excluding all the other dimensions of their person, and all the other kinds of relationships I can have with them. No person can ever be described with a single label, yet often thatās how we operate as a species to make sense of this overwhelming world we live in.
Life is too complex to understand every aspect of every idea and object – if weād try, our brains would explode, especially as children who have little structure for organising their knowledge. To make it easier to process this incredibly complicated world, we divide things into bigger and broader categories. For example, a two-year-old might think that all things with four legs and a tail can be described as ādogsā- itās only as they grow up and process more and more information that they start to differentiate into smaller and more specific categories. Schemas (for thatās what such categories are called) are a useful and necessary function for humans to organize their knowledge of the world. But they can be extremely unhelpful and limiting, especially when applied to people. In particular, I find them incredibly frustrating when talking about mental illness.
Recently I was diagnosed with a mental illness (though I struggle to use even such a term as that – I think the word illness implies a sickness that needs to be cured. I prefer to think of it as a characteristic of my personality thatās neither good nor bad, but helps make me who I am). Letās say I have schizophrenia. Are you concerned that Iām delusional? What if I said I had depression – would you be worried about my emotional state? How about bipolar? Multiple personality disorder? I havenāt changed at all, but has your opinion of me?
It is the automatic reaction of most people to think differently of a person just because they are aware of the label. This prejudgment is a totally understandable and necessary function of human understanding. Psychologist David Rosenhan used this to his advantage by conducting a study where several of his students submitted themselves to psychiatric wards by pretending they could hear voices, that they were delusional and other symptoms of schizophrenia. Once they were admitted, they stopped pretending they were mentally ill and behaved as normal, and they waited to see how long it would take before the staff let them return to the community. They stayed in the psychiatric ward for nineteen days on average before they were finally allowed to leave.
When one of these psychiatric hospitals discovered the hoax that had been played on them, they were outraged. They put a challenge to Rosenhan to send out as many actors as he liked, and they would correctly identify them in order to prove that they were accurate in their diagnoses. Over the next few weeks, the hospitals identified several dozen people they suspected could be accomplices in his experiment. When the time came for him to reveal how many pseudopatients he had sent out, he surprised them all by saying āZero.ā The hospitals had been unable to tell whether their own patients were mentally ill, or ordinary people with ordinary problems.
I need to clarify at this point that Iām not saying mental illness isnāt real. For many people, there are serious and recognisable symptoms that indicate they are struggling with issues perhaps beyond their control. Many of these people will find their lives improved with treatment, psychological, psychiatric, or pharmaceutical.
But I know from my experience of the mental health field that having a mental health diagnosis can be extremely limiting. If a medical professional is reading your medical file and they see ādepressionā on there, itās quite likely theyāre going to treat you as if youāre a depressed person. Or a neurotic person. Or a potentially psychotic person. Worse, colleagues, acquaintances, employers and friends can start to treat you very differently if they discover that at one point in time, one person once described you with a mental illness label.
Donāt get me wrong, diagnoses can be tremendously helpful. In my case, I was so relieved to realise that the quirks that make me who I am, but also cause a fair amount of distress in my life, are partially attributed to a mental health disorder. But I also donāt want to be bound and limited by the nature of my disorder, and I certainly donāt think of myself as ill. Iām exactly the same person, but now Iām more aware of my nature and Iām better able to care for myself as I relate to my disorder.
Iām exactly the same person, but now Iām more aware of my nature and Iām better able to care for myself as I relate to my disorder.
In my personal opinion, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM – the massive book that mental health workers use to diagnose and differentiate mental illnesses) is far too big. It gets really, really specific about symptoms and diagnoses, to the point where normal human behaviour might be interpreted as a sign of mental illness. For example, if a person has been grieving for more than two weeks, it might be justifiable to say that they have major depressive disorder, even though what theyāre experiencing could be perfectly natural.Ā The DSM is remarkably useful, but only to a certain extent – after a while, I think the boundaries start to blur. Trying to separate and categorise the broad spectrum of the human condition into a manual of illnesses just doesnāt work.
Having said that, I also acknowledge that some mental illnesses really do benefit from being treated as if they were illnesses; medication can make a huge difference to peopleās day-to-day lives, so if you have a mental health disorder and your medical professional has prescribed you something, donāt stop taking it. If it helps you, do it. If it doesnāt help you, find something that does. Again I stress, if youāve been advised to do something by a mental health professional, donāt just stop doing it because of something you read on the internet. But really take a good hard look at your relationship with whatever diagnosis has been applied to you. If you think your current treatment might be improved by more socialising rather than more pills (or whatever the case may be), ask your mental health worker to give it serious consideration. People are human, even the ones it labcoats, and thereās a startlingly high rate of misdiagnoses in the mental health profession.
So if a label helps you understand and relate to yourself, thatās fantastic.
But if you donāt think a label suits you, donāt let it define (and therefore limit) you.
Above all, remember that you are a person, not a disorder.
You are exactly as much as you think you are, no more, no less.
So whoever, wherever you are, be the best person you can be.
Thanks to Xin for another great post. If you would like to see your blog published here contact us as we on the look out for some new youth producers to join our team.