Mental Health Awareness Month, Part 1

A stigmatizing picture, the likes of which are all-too-commonly included with “helpful” articles published by mental-health advocacy organizations.

In another round of “awareness” campaigns, this whole month has been dedicated, supposedly, to that of mental health. Last month was for autism. I’m weary to learn what June will be for, what real-life experience for millions will be reduced to a cause for which people post factually-inaccurate and stigma-producing articles and memes in service of nothing more than feeling like they’re contributing to making the world a better place. I was going to just ignore this “awareness”  month campaign (I’ve shared my issues with “awareness” previously) but there’s just too much misinformation, shallow “participation” and ego stroking for me to stay quiet in good conscience. So I’m just going to address a few myths about mental health here.Myth 1: Stigma comes from silence.

It’s true our culture is horrid at talking about most anything of substance anymore. But the stigma surrounding mental illness is not coming from no one talking about it; as far as I can tell, it’s coming from us talking about it badly and in misinformed, uncreative and stagnant ways. For example, most people simply believe the chemical imbalance theory, including mental-health advocacy organizations, and repeat ad nauseum advice about medication that could be seriously harmful in the long run. The biomedical model contributes to stigma; by painting mental illnesses as brain diseases that can strike at any time and for no reason and that you have no control over, we’re displaying people who suffer from mental and emotional distress as loose wires that could snap at any moment. I’m not denying the acute suffering and I still think that this type of suffering is not the fault of the sufferer (which is what the advocates of the “physical illness and mental illness are the same” group want to say) – trauma and environmental failure is not the fault of those who experience it and those are the main causes of mental illnesses.

For another example, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and the general idea still seems to be that it’s “not preventable” and that the best we can do for people struggling in this way, instead of actually showing up for them and being present to their pain, is to give them the number to a hotline so they can talk to a stranger or “encourage them to get help” (“help” here being meds and therapy; while I’m not against therapy – I’m having a truly life-changing experience in therapy myself – what’s absent from this exhortation is any addressing of the environmental roots of mental/emotional suffering, not mention companionship).

Myth 2: Stigma is what is keeping people from “seeking help.”

This one’s easy. Stigma exists and it’s primitive and ridiculous. But the actual reason people don’t “seek help” like so many advocacy organizations blithely suggest without much more specificity than that is that help either doesn’t exist, particularly in rural or poorer communities or, where it does exist, it’s prohibitively expensive. The only way I can afford my amazing therapist is because I am, for the moment, healthy enough to be able to hold down a job with health insurance that has mental health benefits. And the reason I have an amazing therapist is because I live in a big city with lots of resources and got absurdly lucky. The standard operating procedure – as outlined in the code of ethics – is clinical distance to preserve the therapist’s liability. But, if you’re in a therapist’s office willingly, it’s because you’re in pain, and people in pain need empathy, compassion and love. My therapist is so empathetic that he sometimes needs a minute to think clearly after feeling what I’m feeling. I can’t really think of anything more validating than that, speaking for myself. But that’s not the norm. Anyway, the therapeutic relationship is inherently one-sided, and part of becoming a whole human being is developing the capacity for reciprocity.

We really need to stop advising sufferers to “seek help” when we’re not making an effort to create real, non-stigmatizing options that people can actually afford, not to mention reforming our communities into actually supportive environments of belonging and nurturing. We live in an emotionally abusive culture that is coercive, conformity-driven and divisive. This is enough to make any human who genuinely wants emotional intimacy and connection “crazy.” And so far, this entire month, I’ve only heard that kind of talk from “radical” or fringe groups. More next week.


May 31, 2016 at 12:24 pm

I’m interested in this series and talking about the myths. What you are saying makes a lot of sense. I am often unsure if something is a stigma myth until it is laid out against a better way of handling things. I’m also starting to realize, from reading what you have to say, that awareness is a tricky thing to deal with. And that awareness for awareness’ sake isn’t really as helpful as people think…

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