Mental Illness and its Stigmas
A brief introduction to these issues.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference…”
This Serenity Prayer has been around since the early 20th century, and is most commonly used today for individuals battling mental illness, whether that be depression, anxiety, or addiction. The Prayer emphasizes the acceptance of situations out of one’s immediate control, which is a concept many people struggling with mental illness have yet to grasp. In fact, being unable to accept that plenty of situations are out of one’s control is often a source of increased depression for many. Unfortunately, one of the biggest things people cannot control is how others view them—and how people with mental illness are viewed usually through the lenses of stigma.
Stigma is defined simply by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Although this definition is accurate to an extent, it is largely oversimplified. “A mark of disgrace” does not define the feeling of being completely ostracized by one’s peers simply because of different brain chemistry. “A mark of disgrace” does not capture the inner turmoil people struggling with depression feel on a daily basis, only to have that turmoil magnified by rejection and mockery from those around them. And it does not accurately describe how stigma can “stick” to certain people in different ways. Sara Ahmed in her novel The Cultural Politics of Emotion, introduces the idea of “stickiness,” or how, “…emotions are sticky, and even when we challenge our investments, we might get stuck…”
“Stickiness” deals with cultural associations and articulation of emotions, creating associations or connections that relate not only to logic, but feelings. A current cultural example to illustrate this stickiness in the United States can be the labeling of all Muslims as terrorists: logically, it is untrue that every Muslim is a terrorist, yet people are driven by their feeling of fear after hearing news stories about terrorists that happen to be Muslim. Thus, the label of terrorist is culturally “stuck” to Muslims, lending itself to a kind of performative utterance where words either speak from a person, or speak for a person (in this particular example, the label of “terrorist” is speaking for Muslims). This concept of stickiness also creates a kind of subject-object tension, where agency within a subject becomes the target of objectification as a consequence—objectifying all Muslims into the category of terrorists, as an example.
Mental illness in every form—whether that be depression, anxiety, addiction, bipolar disorder, etc.—has only begun to be accepted in the 21st century as an actual illness resulting from abnormal brain chemistry, which too often results in negative stigma attached to those suffering with these mental illnesses. Metonymic sliding of signs which reduce a person down to one particular label (“stickiness”) have no limits, and are particularly prevalent in the case of mental illnesses. In the example outlined above, Muslims are reduced to “terrorists.” In the case of individuals living with mental illness, adjectives such “crazy,” “unstable,” “unfit,” and “insane” are common reductions these individuals receive, all of which are also common stigmas attached to mental illness. Obviously, reducing a person down to one adjective or label does not even begin to capture the complexity of their being, therefore beginning to illustrate one of the many problems of stigma and the way it manifests itself in popular discourse.