Hold Your Heads Together To Reduce Prejudice of Mental Health Problems
Many of the words used to explain human suffering simply don’t work. They don’t work, because they make people feel worse. They don’t work because they increase confusion, fear and prejudice. And they don’t work, because they lead to actions that often do more harm than good.
The words I’m talking about focus on the differences between people rather than what is common. The words I am talking about are born out of a view of suffering that believes in a biological cause. Words like ‘disease, illness, disorder, diagnosis and symptoms.’ And there are clear reasons why these words are used; we have a long history of using them.
Do campaigns that say mental health problems are an illness like any other actually work?
At first glance, it can seem that statistics like ‘1 in 4 will suffer with a mental health problem’ help to de-stigmatise and increase awareness. And, they may do to a point. But the problem is that biologically speaking, there is nothing to separate sufferers from non-sufferers. There is no boundary between us and them. We are all in the same boat. All human beings can act with courage and suffer the despair of loss and losing control.
In fact, studies carried out worldwide show that biological explanations of mental health problems don’t reduce stigma. They increase fear, suspicion and mistrust. This creates division and is a breeding ground for prejudice, aggression and hatred.
The biological model of human suffering suggests that there are genetic causes or chemical imbalances in the brain, which explain why people suffer. The trouble is that there is virtually no scientific evidence to back this up.
There are many myths about human suffering, which you can read about in books like Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing more Harm than Good by James Davies and Doctoring the Mind by Richard Bentall. What these books do well is to illustrate the common un-helpful and inaccurate assumptions that shape the way we think about and react to people who are suffering psychologically.
What if there is nothing to fix?
Contextual behavioural science takes the view that the use of words is an example of an act-in-context. This means that using words like ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’ have a context, which for many people ties into medicine and abnormal psychology. So, when experiences are labelled like this they naturally lead to interventions that try to correct or cure it.
But, what if there is nothing to fix? What if a person’s depression, anxiety or psychosis is perfectly normal for what they have experienced and how they’ve learned to deal with it? If this were true, then what they would need is not a cure, but compassion, acceptance and skills to help them move forwards with purpose. If our mental health services, communities, research programmes and journalism went more in this direction, then I wonder, how would our experiences be different?
In my view, a change is needed in what words we use and how we use them. Words are powerful of course. They can move people. They can incite you to hatred and violence. And they can make you laugh and to feel loved. The words we use and how we say them have a direct impact on other people, our own experiences and the world we influence.
As Mental Health Professionals, we have a responsibility to do what we can to move in directions that contribute more positively to people’s well-being. These endeavours aren’t confined to the therapy room. What we say and do in our offices, with friends and family and in our communities also matters. It matters a great deal.
We’ve witnessed some major political events in the western world these last 12 months. They’ve illuminated the fact that people have very different views and different belief systems. The risk here is that we get stuck in a cycle that creates further division.
Learning to hold your own views more lightly
We are more likely to feed stigma and prejudice when we hold our own views too tightly. This causes us to believe that we are right and they are wrong. It makes it more likely we’ll use words that attack the other person for what they do and say. And this doesn’t work.
At times, I’ve been too intolerant of people who hold a different view to my own. I’ve dismissed them, ignored them or tried to persuade them around to my own. The trouble was that it didn’t work. I’d lost respect for them and it didn’t promote collaboration or build harmony.
My aim going forwards is this. I am going to use words that build bridges. I am going to try do this even when I have the urge to turn away. I’m going to try to do this even when I want to call someone ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’. I want to pay close attention to this when relating to people who think and act differently to me – even when they show prejudice, aggression, condescension or neglect.
I don’t expect this will be easy. It will require me to act mindfully, to remain curious to what others believe and to act courageously so that I can share what I believe works. It will need me to be persistent even when I feel scared, frustrated or angry.
I want to remain open to points of view that seem dramatically different from my own. I want to connect with them so that I can see what they see. I also want to challenge people when they act in a way that I think will cause harm. And I want to do it in a way that they’ll feel safe enough to hear and reflect on what I’m saying.
My hope is that having read this article, you too can make some choices about the words you use. To explore their impact and to connect with people more deeply. My hope is that if we can do this and model this, then we can initiate it in others.
The world can seem a frightening place when you focus on what you cannot control. And, yet hope remains and grows when you notice what you can.
This article was published in CBT Today in May 2017.
Please leave a comment below or share this blog post.