• Perspectives That Are Causing Harm: Mental Health Stigmas

    We’ve all fallen victim of judgment, and we’ve all been responsible for casting the first stone ourselves. Humans are fallible, and we are not capable of living completly judgment-free lives, no matter how many articles on mindfulness we read, or how zen we try to become. Judgments are a part of life. But when does a judgment turn into a stigma? A judgment becomes stigmatization when someone sees another person as lesser than because of a difference, generally having to do with mental illness, medical conditions, or disabilities, but it can even span into social features such as age, gender, social class, etc. Basically, a stigma is the way someone is viewed that may lead to them being discriminated against. 

    Can a judgment ever be harmless?

    Sure. I could have a preference for dog lovers over cat lovers when I’m looking for a partner. You might hear that someone has bucket list items like bungee jumping, or skydiving, and label them as adventurous, or bold. Someone might have a thing for southern gentleman, so when they see a man in some boots and a cowboy hat, they immediately find interest in him. These are all judgments, but none of them are leading to discrimination or unfair treatment of a person. 

    Stigma’s are just opinions, how can they be harmful?

    For as many people in this world, I’m sure there are at least 10 times as many stories about how stigmatization and/or discrimination (which originates from a stigma) has done harm. I’ll share a couple of personal experiences, and I invite you to reflect on your own experiences with stigma and maybe talk with someone you trust if you find thinking about them emotionally disturbing. 

    A few years back my husband and I began the licensing process to become foster parents. We had gone through a difficult patch in our marriage the previous year and because of that, had worked closely with a marriage therapist to reconnect and build the relationship that we wanted as the foundation for our family. Some of you may know this, some of you may not, but when becoming a foster parent, individuals and couples are completely put under a microscope. Their entire lives from birth to present are investigated, evaluated, and questioned. Any involvement with medical professionals or mental health health professionals generally requires questioning and explanation. 

    In one of our interviews with our licensing worker, he was inquiring about our past experieinces in therapy, both individual and couples. At the start of our conversation, he explained to us that he was a retired Marine, and that he didn’t really believe in therapy. I immediately thought, oh, the stigma I’m about to be on the receiving end of. When I encounter people that “don’t believe in therapy”, not only do they cast judgment against me for having utilized therapy myself, but they cast judgment against my entire career and life’s work. That stings a little. 

    So, my husband and I kindly explained to him why we do believe in therapy and how it did help us tremendously, both individually and in our marriage. To which this man responded, “you know, kids add stress to a marriage…are you sure you can handle this?”. Us telling him that we are in the healthiest place we’ve ever been because we overcame adversity together and sought professional help to build a strong foundation for a family turned into him believing that we weren’t equipped to foster.  He wasn’t too happy with my response, especially when I told him that I felt like we were more equipped than someone who hadn’t seen a therapist to strengthen their marriage. In fact, he transferred our case to someone else after that visit– someone who did believe that we were equipped to foster, and who licensed us very quickly.

    I’m not going to pretend that his judgment didn’t affect me though. No marriage is perfect. When hubby and I have our rough patches, and life doesn’t stop, I hear that man’s doubt filling my mind. When the kids seem to pit us against each other, because they’ve become very good at getting their needs met at whatever the cost, I hear his words echoing. But you know what else?  When things are great, and hubby and I are on our A-game, I laugh at imaginary ex-marine licensing worker, and immaturely say to him in my mind, in your face! (Hmm…Maybe I need to let this go…)

    Another experieince I had with being a victim of stigma was in my undergraduate studies, when I shared with a professor that I struggled with C-PTSD and anxiety. This professor and I were discussing my schedule in which I was taking extra courses and working 40+ hours a week, and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and seeking support. The professor began gently, expressing to me that he felt I wouldn’t be able to complete my courses and graduate if I kept my current schedule, but when I respectfully disagreed with him he literally laughed in my face and said “come talk to me when you change your mind”. 

    Fast forward a couple of years and I walked across the stage with a 3.7 GPA without having changed my course load, with the same full-time job, and with volunteer experiences at Make-A-Wish Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Habitat for Humanity. All said and done his words of doubt turned into fuel for me, but I’m not going to pretend that in the midst of the struggle, they didn’t make me question myself. During the late nights when my computer crashed right as I was finishing a research paper, I cried as I heard his stigma echoing in my mind. In the days where I was running on an hour or two of sleep, I deliriously thought to myself, maybe he was right.

    Stigma comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s easier to combat than others, but it almost always requires some amount of effort to fight it off, and often, for years to come. 

    Okay, now time to be super vulnerable

    We are all guilty of holding stigmas, therefore we are all responsible of doing better. I’ll tell you about one that I’ve struggled with in the past, that I’ve come to do better with. 

    Years ago, I used to pass judgment and think less of people any time I heard that they had DSS/child welfare/child protective services (whatever your state calls it) involvement. There, I said it. And now I want to apologize if you’re someone this affects. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, because I don’t know a lick about your story, and I don’t have the right to judge it. And I’m sorry that I’m not the only one that you receive this judgment from.  

    These days, after lots of work at trying to be more compassionate and understanding, when I hear of DSS involvement, I work at my first thought being, I hope that family is getting the support and resources they need to thrive. And that’s it. Because it’s not my job to decide if the parents are good or bad. It’s not up to me to judge how much a parent loves or deserves their kid. If I wanted to be responsible for making those judgment calls, I’d work for DSS, or in the courts. I don’t, so I won’t. 

    So How Can We All Do Better?

    I simply invite you to be open to the idea that we all cast judgments, and that not all of them are harmless. Similar to what I just shared with you, I invite you to reflect on judgments that you make that feel heavy. Judgments that you make that cause you to treat a person or group of persons differently. Judgments that you don’t like to talk about. 

    Once you’ve got one in mind, explore it. Where did that judgment originate from? Maybe a bad experieince? Maybe this judgment was taught to you? Maybe a lack of understanding? First, understand yourself better. 

    Next, try to understand that person or population better. Explore them with an innocent curiousity. You’re not investigating with the intention of bringing them down, you’re just being curious so that you can understand. You want to be able to explain their thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally to someone else in your own words, without disdain or malice. Once you can do that, you can almost 100% safely say that you understand them without judgment. 

    Then, bring that nonjudgmental attitude with you as you move forward. You’ve now combatted a stigma that you were once a part of, and that’s something to be proud of.

    You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem- Eldridge Cleaver