“I discovered at an early age that I was - shall we be kind and say different? It's a better, more general word than the other one... I got sick... It was the feeling that the great, deadly pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me - and the great voice of millions chanting, "Shame. Shame. Shame." It's society's way of dealing with someone different.”
~ Ken Kesey, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Mental Health and Autism are perhaps the only type of illnesses where the sufferer is likely to be shunned and ostracised by friends and peers, and even family. Nobody stops to realise that it is precisely this sort of reaction that causes stigma, worsening symptoms and suicide. The tragedy is mental health in itself is not lethal, it is precisely the reaction from other human beings coupled with the inability of society to accommodate and understand that make it so. It is not these type of illnesses themselves that kill but rather it is how people and society respond to them collectively. When understood this way, is it any wonder those with poor mental health who have been neglected by those around them turn anti social, to violence, psychopathy and suicide? It is perfectly understood. This is why early intervention is absolutely fundamental when it comes to mental health.
Now imagine someone had diabetes, naturally this is beyond their control and they have to monitor Glucose levels and self-inject to stay stable and healthy, much the same way mental health sufferers need to administer medication and attend talk therapy. Now, let’s imagine because of their condition the diabetic was stigmatised, invalidated, dehumanised, abandoned, ignored and made to feel like a monster. I surmise then many diabetics would fall into depression and soon forget to take care of themselves and administer injections as they should. The exact same applies to mental health, yet it is far more insidious because the mental health sufferer has no recourse to defend himself. Unlike the diabetic, who has a solid understanding of why he or she may be feeling unwell the mental health sufferer cannot articulate or express himself in the same way. He or she cannot explain why his or her mind has turned in on itself. In addition, recovery from mental health depends strongly on support and understanding from others, which is often missing.
People need to understand that severe mental illness and other conditions, in terms of lethality and suffering, are on par with severe physical disease and illness. A patient diagnosed with a severe personality disorder, they can have a 10 to 15 percent chance of killing themselves over their lifetime and almost an even greater chance of nobody wanting to be around them while he or she is alive. But tears will be shed at the funeral and regrets lamented. From this people with mental health are the strongest and people in denial of mental health (the majority) are the weakest.
Thus, mental health stigma and the behaviour that leads to it is perhaps the most cowardly and arrogant of all social phenomena. For to practice mental health stigma one cannot be ontologically secure in themselves. True strength and self confidence resides in an open and accepting approach of oneself and in the other. Today the young and old are taking their own lives in droves because other human beings and society forces them to feel ashamed of their own very existence, inner experience and apparent ineptitude.
Mental health stigma is a liar, it also serves to wash away the truth of the conditions, and positives. Yes I said positives! Dr. John Nash, Nobel Prize Winner later portrayed in the film 'A Beautiful Mind' once said, "people are always selling the idea that people with mental illness are suffering, but that is not always the case - madness can be an escape." Indeed, time and space prevents me from providing you with a comprehensive list, but it is well known that some of the most brilliant minds that ever existed were touched by 'madness' of one form or another. Perhaps it is a sub-conscious resentment on behalf of 'normal man' that also helps to drive stigma. Finally, the personality characteristics associated with certain mental health 'disorders' may in fact be an advantage and an asset during times of upheaval and chaos in the world. Who knows, in 50 to 100 years time certain mental health disorders of today could be the new 'normal', and today's 'normal' the disordered of the future.
Gowain Reid Patrick McKenna,
M.Phil. M.Sc B.Eng (Hons)
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