I touched on the idea that labels are intrinsically different than stigma in Removing The Labels of Mental Illness. I believe that. Mental illness is, at its core, attached to stigma. Although mental health stigma is weaker than it once was, stigma is damaging nonetheless. But first, let’s examine the connection between stigmatizing mental illness and labeling it.
The Mental Illness Stigma – Labeling Connection
Primarily, the feelings associated with both mental health stigma and labeling ourselves are damaging. Feeling as if others may think less of you, perhaps they are afraid of you, and living with the notion that you are, in fact, different. Stigma and labeling yourself both instill fear in society and in mentally ill individuals.
Stigma is a group of negative beliefs and we cannot always control it. But we can control how we react to stigma by refuting self-labels (self-stigma).
Defining Stigma Related to Mental Illness
Stigma is a word that is not used as much as it once was. People who live with a chronic mental illness probably feel it more than they hear it. It is not, shall I say, politically correct to publicly stigmatize someone. This does not mean it does not happen.
Based on my experience, I find that stigma is defined in a societal way. Before getting an official diagnosis of mental illness, all of us grew up with an idea of what being mentally ill means. Often, the words mentally ill are quickly connected to “crazy” and “sick.” Much like racism, stigmatizing mental illness will probably always be in society, despite the positive movements towards equality.
Stigma surrounding mental illness is connected to the world we live in: it might be invisible but we can still feel it. This can make mental health recovery hard. If a person diagnosed with a mental illness has felt the stigma surrounding the disease before the diagnosis, before they became sick, it is hard to believe that society will accept them. It makes it hard to separate themselves from the illness.
Stigma Is Societal, Labeling is Personal
If stigmatizing mental illness is closely connected to societal notions of normalcy, then labeling yourself because you’re diagnosed with mental illness can be the result. Labels are usually words we attach to ourselves, largely because of our experience being diagnosed with a mental illness and learning to live with it. For example, we might label ourselves as being bipolar as opposed to having bipolar disorder.
Removing the labels of mental illness is not something that is easy to do, and can only happen if we understand that the stigma surrounding mental illness will always be reflected in society, but is not a reflection of us as human beings.
Stigma does not define us as people. We are not crazy: we have a mental illness and we can recover. We do recover.
Living With and Accepting the Stigma Around Mental Illness
It is important to note that most people do not attach stigma to mental illness. Many people know someone who lives with it, or they quietly struggle themselves. But you cannot eliminate it completely.
It’s much easier to live your life working to understand who you really are, and not connecting yourself to the stigma surrounding the illness. Work to eliminate, or educate, those who stigmatize you. Put recovery first. This is easier said than done, but you can work toward a life free of feeling stigmatized and, in turn, stop labeling yourself in the process.