by Annabelle Parr
There’s a virus spreading across America. It harms the 1 in 5 Americans affected by mental health conditions. It shames them into silence. It prevents them from seeking help. And in some cases, it takes lives. What virus are we talking about? It’s stigma. Stigma against people with mental health conditions. But there’s good news. Stigma is 100% curable. Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote (NAMI, 2018).
Stigma is a nasty virus, but this manifesto fails to capture the fact that stigma doesn’t just hurt the 1 in 5 who are struggling with diagnosable mental health conditions. It hurts every single one of us.
Mental health exists on a continuum. When we create a false dichotomy that suggests that some people are mentally ill while everyone else is healthy and well, we fail to recognize the range of experience that falls somewhere in the middle. And we fail to recognize that where you stand on the continuum can fluctuate and change throughout life.
The continuum enters the realm of DSM diagnosis when a person displays a clinically significant level of functional impairment. In other words, to qualify for a diagnosis, the person must be unable to function in an important area of life as a result of the presenting symptoms. But there are plenty of people who are functioning seemingly well in relationships, work, school, etc., who appear just fine from the outside, yet inside they are hurting and need some help. These folks aren’t feeling “well,” but they don’t necessarily meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis.
The thing is, while 1 in 5 Americans are affected by a mental health condition, 5 in 5 Americans know what it is to feel pain. The frequency, intensity, and duration can vary, but pain itself is a function of being human. When culture stigmatizes the 1 in 5 and simultaneously dichotomizes illness and wellness, the resulting message is that it is shameful to struggle and to feel pain. In essence, stigma says that it is shameful to admit our own humanity.
With stigma, we all become isolated in our suffering. But with compassion (which means to suffer with), we can find connection in the midst of and even as a result of pain through our experience of common humanity. We all know loss, grief, heartbreak, anger, anxiety, sadness, regret, inadequacy, and disappointment. We all have our own version of the “I’m not good enough” story. What if, instead of burying these feelings deep in our shame vaults, instead we shared them? Stigma wouldn’t be able to survive.
Just because pain is a part of being human, that doesn’t mean a professional can’t help us navigate the more difficult aspects of existence. Despite what stigma says, seeking therapy in the midst of struggle is a sign of strength and wisdom. Therapy can benefit anyone, no matter where the person falls on the continuum of mental health. In fact, even therapists benefit from therapy. A few of the CSAM clinicians decided to share a little bit of their own experiences as clients in therapy.
Dr. Jill Stoddard, CSAM Director, said:
I like to think of my mental health a lot like I think of my physical health--they both need ongoing attention and care to stay at their best. When I get a small cough or cold, I might just manage it on my own with my neti pot and some Vics Vapo-Rub. But if I have strep throat or a broken bone, I'm going to seek out professional help and continue to follow up with my physician until I'm well. Even when things are stable and there are no overt signs of trouble, I still see my dentist, optometrist, and dermatologist for regular check-ups. So goes my mental health. Life can get really painful. If I'm dealing with smaller hassles, I might go to yoga or seek support from my friends or family. But when my mom died, I went to therapy to help process my grief. When my husband and I were feeling the distance that often comes with raising a young family while also working, we sought out couples’ therapy. Now, our marriage is stronger than ever, AND we still see our therapist for sporadic "check ups."
Dr. Michelle Lopez, CSAM Assistant Director, wrote:
I think about mental health care as a lot like car care. If my car is having problems, it may need to be in the shop for a while. Other times, it might just need a quick tune up. It might also take me some time to find the right mechanic, and I might have to try a few out before I find the right one. But it’s important to pay attention to signs that the car needs service, because neglecting it is likely to lead to more problems. I’ve participated in therapy at various points in my life, and have sought help to work through life experiences and challenges such as coping with the physical and emotional pain of a physical injury, processing the loss of my dad, living with infertility, and creating a healthy work-life balance. Currently, my car is functioning quite well, but I make sure to take notice when that “check engine” light comes on.
Dr. Janina Scarlet, CSAM psychologist and founder of Superhero Therapy, shared:
When my dear friend lost her battle with cancer, I was devastated. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't concentrate on my school work, and I found myself too overwhelmed to function. I decided to see a grief counselor. I had never been in counseling before and didn't know what to expect. My therapist was warm, compassionate, and understanding. She helped me process my grief and find meaning in this loss. I am extremely grateful for this experience as it allowed me to find myself again.
Hopefully, in acknowledging the full range of human experience and removing the false dichotomy that currently separates us into We-Who-Are-Healthy and They-Who-Have-Pathology, we will begin to fill the space that is currently occupied by stigma with acceptance and compassion, both for ourselves and others.
CSAM IS HERE TO HELP
If you or someone you love might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, insomnia, or chronic illness, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
NAMI, 2018. Mental health month. Retrieved from: https://www.nami.org/mentalhealthmonth