Thursday, August 11, 2016

The problem with stigma

What is stigma? The dictionary defines it as
a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation. 
The archaic meaning is a mark made by a branding iron on the skin of a criminal or slave. 

If you, or someone you love, is dealing with the stigma of a mental health condition or an addiction, or perhaps both of these together, then stigma probably matters to you quite a bit. Maybe it feels like your loved one (and you too) - or even your whole family is wearing a giant red brand - right on your forehead - that says something really harsh. (ADDICT) or (ENABLER). And it's right there for everyone to see....  (THIEF) ... Yeah, I know it feels like that to me.

As if people with a dual diagnosis aren't dealing with enough in their lives, the people who talk behind their backs while smiling at their face, asking them how they are doing and then speak meanly about them to others as soon as they walk away. Rumors are spread (which may be true or untrue - basically it is Gossip). It just makes me very, very sad.

I have learned about stigma. I have watched it crumble fragile people as they learn what other people think about them. I see how past misdeeds these people have overcome are brought back to the surface time and time again, like pouring salt into old wounds. I observe the disappointment and witness their hopelessness that relationships will ever change.

It makes me really sad.

So, how do we fix this?

Given all that is talked about regarding mental illness and addiction and the fact that "it's a brain disorder" is now regularly being reported in the media. This implies it's not your fault or your parent's fault. Sadly, this is not helping matters regarding stigma.

We need to be able to get to a place of empathy and understanding about what is behind the actions that drive the behavior. Behind what impels someone to use drugs, act out inappropriately, or steal. We need to stop blaming and begin to look for helpful answers, solutions rather than labels. Inclusion instead of exclusion. We need to stop being judgmental. To put ourselves in their shoes...

I am a changed person today based on what my loved one has had to endure. As a mom, I will do almost anything to stop my child's pain, or at least help him to understand the reasoning behind it. Of course, I want him to take responsibility for his actions and realize it's not easy to erase bad deeds in other people's eyes. I do hope these are the consequences that will help to change future behaviors.

People can recover from mental illness. People can recover from addictive behaviors. People can change and behave differently. People can. People do. I believe recovery can happen a little quicker within a supportive environment.

I'm not saying it's easy (just so we're clear). But I believe casting people away does far greater harm than good. Sure, they might finally be out of your life, and certainly, that might be exactly what you need. I get that. I am a proponent of taking care of oneself first. Setting clear boundaries about what you will and will not accept is key, rules and expectations definitely play a role here.

My aim is to inspire compassion while also emphasizing that people can change. If you are someone who has stigmatized others, I hope you will think about your role in the relationship. Please ask, listen, and find a way to empathize. If you are someone who has been stigmatized, please talk with others about how this made you feel. We all need kindness. This world definitely needs more empathetic people.