An example of both types of mental health stigma

Content note: This post contains both criticism of and respect for the mental health system. If you find either upsetting, it’s likely that this post will bother you.

I wrote recently about two distinct kinds of mental illness stigma. There’s dismissiveness, where people aggressively deny that someone’s mental illness is real. There’s dehumanization, where people believe that someone’s mental illness is real, and treat them as though their condition makes them less than fully human. Both are common, and people who have experienced one more than the other tend to have very different perceptions of the mental health system.

One example of difference in perception: Mental health advocates often say things like “Medication for mental illness is just like insulin for a diabetic”. People who have mostly faced dismissiveness often see this as validation; people who have mostly faced dehumanization often see it as a threat.

From the perspective of someone who has mostly experienced dismissiveness, it might sound like this:

  • I’m really glad that someone understands how serious my medical condition is
  • People have told me over and over that I don’t have a real problem
  • Or that medication is just a crutch I’m using to avoid dealing with things
  • Or that it’s whiny to want medication
  • Or they might say things like “You’re not sick. People with cancer are sick.”
  • My medication is really, really necessary
  • Or even: my medication saved my life, and I think I’d die if I stopped taking it.
  • I’ve had to fight my doctor, my family, or my insurance company to get access to the medication I need.
  • It messes up my life when people don’t take my need for medication seriously.
  • I’m glad someone gets it about how real my medical condition is, and how important it is for me to have access to medication.

For someone who has mostly faced dehumanization, a statement like that might sound more like this:

  • People have treated me like I’m not a person, and use analogies to physical conditions to justify it.
  • People have made me take medication I didn’t want to take, that did things to my brain and body that I didn’t like.
  • They’ve done this to me in order to change how I felt, thought, or behaved.
  • They’ve told me that what they were doing to me was just like giving insulin to a diabetic.
  • And that this meant I could not possibly have any valid reason to object to the treatment they wanted me to have.
  • But diabetes and mental illness aren’t actually all that similar.
  • Insulin-dependent diabetics who refuse treatment die. When I refused treatment, I didn’t die. It’s not the same. I’m not sick in that way.
  • The way I am is not the same as having a life-threatening physical condition with an obvious straightforward life-sustaining treatment.
  • It’s important that people understand the difference.
  • When they don’t understand the difference, they treat me as though I’m not a real person unless I am on the medication they want me to be on.
  • People say “unmedicated” like it means violent, dangerous, or incapable of understanding something. It doesn’t. It just means that someone isn’t taking medication. That doesn’t tell you anything in itself.
  • I need people to respect me as a person, and respect my right to make treatment decisions. When they don’t, things can get really bad really fast.

There are numerous other examples of things like this. Most things people say about mental health look very different to people who have primarily experienced dismissiveness than they do to people who have primarily experienced dehumanization. Neither perspective is right or wrong exactly; both are important and incomplete.

Access to psychiatric medication is important; respect for the humanity and human rights of people who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions is also important. Things aren’t great for anyone, and they could be a lot better for everyone.

tl;dr Mental health discourse often looks very different depending on perspective. People who have mostly faced dismissiveness tend to see things one way; people who have mostly faced dehumanization tend to see things a different way. Scroll up for a concrete example.