Do Attempts to Sanitize Mental Illness Reduce Stigma?

Is it helpful to try to sanitize mental illness? It's an illness, and it can be complicated.

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 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
  • 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 why I came up with the rainbow model of mental illness symptoms and functioning.

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?

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

53 thoughts on “Do Attempts to Sanitize Mental Illness Reduce Stigma?”

  1. Hi Ashley. I’m sorry I missed this one earlier, as I think I weigh in on it. Having recently made a move between two parts of the country with vastly different cultural values, I can perceive in retrospect how much of mental illness was “sanitized” in the area where I used to live.

    I’m still in touch with some old friends from the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula / Silicon Valley area, and in some circles it’s almost “trendy” to have a mental health diagnosis that one discusses freely — almost casually — while displaying a high-functioning personality in the work force. In a way, this does a disservice to those whose mental health conditions actually do debilitate them and keep them from being able to function in the workaday world.

    While mental health disorders are often stigmatized, in that culture they were almost glorified. If I person does have to leave their job, they are often met in parting with an employer or co-worker saying: “Well, you shouldn’t feel bad. It’s not really a big deal. I myself have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and I have to take an SSRI, but I still work.” Then of course the departing person feels even worse than ever, because their disabling condition has been minimized.

    Here in Idaho, I’ve encountered mostly the opposite. The stigmatic misconceptions around mental illness are so strong that a person who cannot work is often perceived either as “lazy” or “having a drug problem.” People seem to have no way of explaining to themselves a person’s abnormal behavior, other than to write it off as the side effects of “some drug.” So the phenomenon is not “sanitized” in the least, and those with known mental health diagnoses are often regarded as lepers or pariahs.

    I’m not sure which is worse. Excellent, thought-provoking post & discussion.

      1. On more than a mere moment’s reflection. I realized that the highly stigmatized side is definitely worse – as well as (I think) still more prevalent.

        It’s interesting that this came up, because a friend I have been discussing “black and white thinking” on another forum. One thing that has emerged is that our language does not support “middle ground,” “grey area,” or “rainbow variations.” We often have single words to adequately describe the extremes, but we need to use many words to describe places in between.

        For example, there is the word “high” and the word “low.” But is there a single word for “three quarters of the way from low towards high?” No there’s not. And I just used nine words to describe it.

        Because of this need to use more words in such descriptions, the brain shies away from the ardor of that task, and defaults to the more approximate “black and white” word, simply because the brain prefers to process fewer words, for the sake of simplicity.

        There are actually a few studies on this. I can track them down if you’re interested.

          1. That’s a good question. Maybe a bit of both? I also wonder how much of this is specific to the English language, or perhaps Germanic / Teutonic languages. It’s not something I know much about.

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