I am mentally ill, and I am also a lot of different things. But do people see all of those things, or mostly just the illness?
We all have many different identities associated with all the social roles that we play; not identities as in personalities, but bundles of knowledge, expectations, patterns of behaviour that are associated with specific roles. These help us navigate the social world and understand the roles of people who we interact with. For some of us, mentally ill is one of those identities.
The nature of stigma
It’s the nature of stigma that identities that society has deemed to be deviant are seen as all-consuming. If I have a stigmatized identity, in the eyes of society, that’s all that I am and all that I ever will be until the end of time. That’s not reality-based, but stigma isn’t about reality. Stigma involves stereotypes, and stereotypes aren’t multifaceted the way people are.
One of the ideas behind person-first language is that it portrays a person as being more than just the illness. However, stigma runs deeper than words. If we routinely use adjectives to describe positive and neutral characteristics, using adjectives related to mental illness (e.g. referring to myself as mentally ill) wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for stigma.
Part of challenging stigma is showing people that we’re not just our illness, and we’re not just stereotypes. We are multi-faceted humans, and we are so much more than people’s stigma. To convince people to see beyond stereotypes and see us takes more than just grammatical tweaks. One of the things it takes is being able to move beyond our own self-stigma and see the many sides of ourselves in order to unapologetically project those out into the world.
Our many identities
I’ve put together an identity map exercise, including examples filled out for myself, as part of the stigma reduction toolkit to accompany my new book, A Brief History of Stigma. It prompts exploration of several different aspects of personal and social identity:
- Roles: What are the different roles that you play?
- Relationships: What are some of the roles you play in key relationships, e.g. daughter/son, parent, sibling, friend, colleague?
- Beliefs & values: What are the beliefs and values that act as your compass in life?
- Interests & passions: What makes your life brighter?
- Objective personal characteristics: We’ve all got our basic demographic characteristics, e.g. I’m a 40-something Canadian.
- Subjective sense of self: What is it like to be you on the inside? For example, I see myself as an introvert, and that affects how I see myself in relation to the world.
We’re all a lot of different things, and whether we’re mentally ill or not, no single thing defines us as a whole. The more that we’re able to hang onto that awareness, the better the position we’re in to resist the pull of self-stigma.
The effects of mental illness
Mental illness can affect many different sides of us, but so can other chronic illnesses, significant life events, or roles that we fulfill. There are a lot of things that can have a big impact on our lives both at the time and moving forward, but that doesn’t mean that they fundamentally change the whole of who we are. Having a kid, for example, changes a whole lot of things about a person’s life, but they’re still the same person.
Mental illness changes what I can do, and often changes what I’m interested in doing, and there are certain parts of me that just aren’t accessible anymore. I feel the effects of my mental illness every day, and in every part of my life. Overall, though, I’m still me, and I’m still much more than just the illness.
Role engulfment is the idea that we can get so caught up in one role that we fulfill that it takes over our whole identity. This is kind of like what stigma does, but it happens internally, rather than having to do with how others view us.
I think it’s so important to hold onto an anchor of self in spite of illness. Having a greater number of role identities actually has a protective effect when it comes to facing stigma, as it can help with framing stigma as something that’s directed at one side of the self (or people’s beliefs about that side of the self) rather than being directed at the self as a whole.
Identifying the illness as being part of the self is not necessarily a bad thing; what seems to be the determining factor there is the perceived legitimacy of stigma. Identifying as being an illness and perceiving the legitimacy of stigma to be high makes for a bad combination.
The many sides of me
I am mentally ill, and I am also…
- a guinea pig mama
- a sister
- an auntie
- a daughter
- a friend
- an author
- a blogger
- a retired nurse
- a Google looker-upper rockstar
- a reader
- a continuous learner
- a science geek
- an introvert
- a former solo world traveller who’s been to 5 continents
These are sides of me and roles that I play, but none of them are me in my entirety. No one can fully understand me by only knowing one of those aspects.
Dealing with stigma
When stigma is directed my way, I perceive it as being directed at other people’s conceptions of that mentally ill identity. I don’t see it as being directed at all of the many sides of me. That doesn’t negate the negative consequences of discriminatory behaviours, but it does help me to stay anchored within my self.
Framing stigma makes it easier to get pissed off at people who stigmatize rather than blame myself. Having a strong in-group identification with other people with mental illness can make it easier to tap into a righteous anger response, which is protective against the effects of stigma.
That’s not to say the objective effects of stigma don’t suck; they really do. But that doesn’t mean that people’s stigmatized views of us are correct.
What are some of the many sides of you?