A simple explanation of the effects of stigma around mental illness.
This is Arbie, at first glance he looks pretty intimidating, right? Especially as he looks poised to eat a human foot. Photos however can be misleading, he’s more of a licker than a biter.
Like me, Arbie has pretty full on mental health problems. Much of his behaviour is weird and difficult. He does stuff like this for most of the day:
It can be tiresome, annoying* and totally ruin your Netflix and chill vibes.
As you can see Arbie has a missing leg. He was hit by a bus, his previous owners left him by the road to die. He’s scared of the rain too because it’s thought that he was often left alone on a high-rise balcony to endure all weathers.
You might think that Arbie looks scary and behaves oddly, but those things do not make him dangerous. Arbie is not dangerous. Like most of us who are scarred by trauma Arbie just needs a little bit more care and attention than other dogs.
Of course, some dogs that have been habitually beaten and abused will become unmanageably aggressive and attack everything in sight. Just as some dogs become dangerous and aggressive for less obvious and more complex reasons. I can’t speak to that. What I can say is that Arbie and I may well be barking** mad, but we are not violent and we are not dangerous. You might find our behavior perplexing, annoying or even disturbing at times, but mostly we’re just a bit frightened of the rain (or whatever) and don’t mean anyone any harm. Like the rest of us, Arbie just wants a bit of love and even though his breath sometimes smells like a pair of festival budgie smugglers, I’m totally down for that.
Stigma is a real problem for those of us with MH diagnoses. Of course, acts of violence are always going to be linked to mental health problems. I’d argue that the desire to physically harm another human being is by definition mentally unhealthy, but that’s just one type of mental health problem and it’s hugely misrepresented. It receives a colossally disproportionate amount of coverage in the news and media for obvious reasons. The common face of mental illness is never going to make the news because footage of me crying in a Sainsbury’s toilet isn’t as compelling as some anomalous and horrific act of violence. Equally, if someone with Schizoaffective disorder pulls a puppy from a burning barn their diagnosis obviously won’t be mentioned, as it wouldn’t be deemed relevant.
We all know that media and movies don’t deal in the mundane; they revel in the sensational. Sadly, understanding this doesn’t make us immune to being indoctrinated by the negative stereotypes this macabre sensationalism perpetuates.
Just because the news shows the ravages of war every night, I don’t go around assuming all people with a clear bill of mental health stroll about on the brink of committing genocidal atrocities twenty four seven. That would be a ludicrous and irresponsible assumption, and you’d be right to feel upset about it.
Stigma is real and its affects can really suck. Here’s an example from my own life.
Call me a soppy chump but I was always of the school that it’s nice to be nice. If I had an opportunity to be a nice guy, I would go out of my way to try and fulfil that roll. I had this friend, we’d hung out a fair bit and had enough real chats to get the measure of each other, or so I thought. I’d always been kind to him, pleasant, warm and thoughtful, as I strive to be with everyone.
I was in a relationship with someone that I cared about deeply, and one day out of the blue she said she had something important to talk to me about. I could tell by her tone and expression that this wouldn’t be a gaze into each other’s eyes and exchange romantic haikus type chat.
She told me that my friend, the one who I’d only ever been nice to, had told her that she’d better watch out for me. That I might be dangerous. He’d heard things. That she should be careful because who knows what type of crazy violence I might be capable of?
I had to sit across from someone I loved, someone I’d known for years and been in an intimate relationship with, and convince them that I wasn’t dangerous. I’d never once displayed any aggression or even raised my voice to either of them. She’d seen me ill. I emotionally withdraw. I can be quiet and weird which I know is unsettling and at worst pretty grumpy too, but never ever violent. As I sat calmly explaining that I have never and would never violently attack a woman my heart was breaking. The thought that anyone, never mind someone that knew me well and that I loved dearly could think me capable of something so repugnant was upsetting beyond words.
Those of us with diagnoses are really vulnerable to these misconceptions being exploited. Sometimes stigma is perpetuated by cultural behemoths that need to be held accountable, sometimes by petty, spiteful or just misinformed individuals. Part of my illness means that I’m quite neurotic and paranoid and the upshot of these experiences is that I’ll never be able to walk into a room without suspecting that someone thinks I’m capable of things that I’m simply not. As someone who is prone to social withdrawal, I’m poorly equipped to deal with anyone whose agenda might be to harm my public image or capacity to function socially.
I’ve had some really ugly things said about me and what I might be capable of because of my illness. Not based on facts or evidence, just malicious stigma. Unsurprisingly whenever I flag it up people don’t want to hear it. I mean it’s hardly fun chats and it’s just not that relatable unless you’ve experienced it. I’m usually told to try not to think about it, they’re just words, they do no real damage. That’s not true though, those words do very real damage. All it took for someone who I know loved me to question whether I might be some sort of horrendous monster was one person saying, he is crazy he could be dangerous. A lifetime of indoctrination did the rest. The culmination of these prejudices have made me less inclined to be nice. Each one has made me a little bit more detached, less trusting, bitter, cynical. That’s a really sad thing to know about yourself.
I understand how in a world full of such blatant and obvious horrors mental health stigma may seem a bit a trivial or insubstantial, but it’s affects are very real. Because of stigma I had to give up a career I loved, move away from a city I loved and put myself in a dangerously isolated position for someone with my condition. Little Arbie was nearly put down because of unwarranted prejudices. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35 in the UK because stigma prevents them from seeking help. All I hope for is that as a society we start focusing on things like evidence and facts rather than perpetuating a torrent of scaremongering and prejudice, because those things truly are dangerous.
* Sorry if the following sounds patronising, it isn’t meant to. Sometimes we just need reminding of things we intrinsically know. Occasionally people with mental health issues talk in manner or context you might find inappropriate or don’t communicate when you feel they should. You may have experienced this and found it frustrating or unsettling and that’s okay because you’re only human. However, if you want to be a next level mensch, try to remember in those moments that it’s not their fault and that they aren’t being deliberately difficult. Chances are they’re feeling pretty distressed. If you came into contact with someone who was in shock because they’d just been in a car accident, you’d probably just be kind to them and ignore any behaviour you found to be peculiar. Things like shock or psychosis are often just manifestations of pain, they can be complicated to deal with and uncomfortable to be around, but compassion never hurts. If in doubt, just be nice.
** Not even sorry about the pun, I told you I’ve changed for the worse.