Recently, I came across a post that was a myths vs. facts type deal on mental illness stigma. One of the myths identified was that people with mental illness are disabled. The blogger’s response was that, on some days, mental illness could make it harder to work for some people, but there are also people who are really high functioning.
Mental illness with ribbons in its hair
This is just one example, but I think it’s part of a bigger issue; sometimes people will try to dress up mental illness and put ribbons in its hair to show just how acceptable and normal-ish it is.
I wonder, though, if, in the rush to move away from the scary crazy person stereotype, the people who are more ill/disabled from their mental illness get shuffled off to the back of the closet. If we try too hard to sanitize mental illness, something important might get lost.
I don’t think it’s malicious when people say mental illness is only kinda sorta maybe sometimes a tiny bit disabling. The same goes when people try to take “mentally ill” off the menu and only talk about mental health issues/problems/challenges. I think, though, that there is a level of privilege in that position. And yes, I know the word privilege is a very charged; however, I don’t think it’s the really unwell segment who are trying to put the bows and ribbons on.
A whole rainbow of non/crazy
There are all kinds of different people out there in the world, including:
- “normal” folks
- “normal” but crazy in a non-psychiatric way people
- those who have a mental illness but are (mostly) well-ish and can “pass”
- people with moderate illness/disability, who can sometimes “pass” with considerable effort
- people with severe mental illness/disability
- bat shit crazy “normal” people
- the “violent psycho” stereotype
In that whole big rainbow of craziness and lack thereof, there’s room for a lot of different people.
The public face of mental illness
An array of different people is hard to put on an anti-stigma logo. Perhaps sometimes the moderately to severely ill/disabled people can start to feel a little too close to the crazy person stereotypes for some people who are well enough to pass as “normal.” If I was close to “normal,” who knows, I might not be so keen on the crazy folk bringing down the mentally ill team’s overall batting average.
I’m using ridiculous language because I’m not trying to make this about language. I’m also making generalizations because I don’t think it’s about specific details. I just think there’s an overarching question about how we want to represent ourselves as people living with mental illness. If the push is too far towards representing ourselves as “normal”, those of us getting our asses kicked by mental illness might get left behind.
And yes, challenging stereotypes is good. But if people are pointing to celebrities with great careers as mascots of what living with a mental illness looks like, that isn’t necessarily all that much more accurately representative than the crazy person stereotype.
Finding a middle ground
Somewhere in the middle might be someone with ribbons in her hair to disguise the fact that she hasn’t showered for a while, who’s going to work despite the panic attack she woke up with. And a whole rainbow’s worth of people around her, some struggling less, some struggling more. Perhaps the whole rainbow is the best way to capture who we are—that’s where the rainbow model comes in.
Have you ever noticed any attempts to sanitize mental illness? Do you think people who are really unwell should be part of the public face of mental illness?
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.
A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.
Visit the book page for tips on how to be an effective advocate.