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Brontë is an honours student in cultural anthropology and has been researching children’s experiences of parental mental illness in New Zealand. She founded Mind Space, which is a peer support group for students dealing with someone else’s mental health or addiction issues here at Vic. Check it out: https://www.facebook.com/mindspaceatvictoria
One in four people in New Zealand are likely to experience a mental illness. One in every five families have a parent with a mental illness or addiction. And university students have lower levels of wellbeing compared to the rest of the population (Tertiary Health Survey, 2013), so it is quite likely you know or care for someone who is experiencing mental illness (MI). It doesn’t just affect the diagnosed person. People aren’t immune from their loved ones’ mental illness and addiction. It can be hard watching your loved one experience MI, especially in our society where we are still pretty weird and discriminatory about it.
MI is caused by both biological and social occurrences. A medicalised approach focusses on biological or neurological chemical imbalances, but this is inseparable from people’s day-to-day experiences. So when people are dealing with major upheaval and stressful life circumstances, they can become ‘at risk’ of having ‘low wellbeing’ or mental illness. It is something we can’t really get away from. It’s a part of life, so we might as well talk about it!
The World Health Organisation approaches mental illness with a healthy-versus-unhealthy continuum. In our neoliberal society, “[m]ental health is more than the mere lack of mental disorders” (WHO, 2009). Today, the ‘ideal’ body is in “[a] state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing” (WHO, 2009), and ‘normal health’ encapsulates feelings of wellbeing and general success, including emotional and financial independence (Rose, 2001, 2007).
In contrast, mental illness is described as an experience when people become unable to “recognise their abilities, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and make a contribution to their communities” (WHO, 2009). This is a pretty specific understanding of health, so over time, feelings of sadness or grief in the West have become medicalised experiences, which means more and more people are diagnosed with mental-illness labels. It is to consider what effects these health and illness labels have on individuals as they ultimately divide people into boxes of the ‘healthy-normal’ or the ‘ill-other’.
Labelling and stigma
Historically contingent ideas of MI have generated some very harmful and stigmatising stereotypes which are pervasive today. Even though we have got All Blacks on television saying they get depression, there are still major challenges that come with getting a mental-illness label. Nine out of ten people with mental-health problems feel discriminated against in their daily engagements with people. They are often restricted from employment, social groups, familial roles, or even have their children taken out of their care (Appleton, 2000; Gladstone et al, 2011). This is seriously problematic.
Once you get a particular illness label that has negative connotations of deviance and difference, you can be othered. Being othered means you’re put in a box separate from ‘the normals’, and once you have been labelled as something outside of being ‘normal’, people can legitimately reject, avoid or dehumanise you.
Dehumanisation is a process where you stop thinking about people as people but rather as something separate and different from you. Individuals and their families experiencing MI often talk how labels affect them, and how society often boxes them into a group distinct from ‘everyday-normal people’ unworthy of our love and time. These ideas can be internalised by the ‘othered’ person who may then ‘accept’ and ‘normalise’ the negative ideas about them. This can only exacerbate the problem.
Discrimination and stigma is unfair, and can make things so much harder for everyone. It makes it harder to talk about, cope with, seek support and normalise mental illness.
In reflection of her parent’s mental illness, a seven-year-old said, “…actually, it is other people’s reactions that is the biggest problem”. This is a sad reality, but it also leaves us with power. We can do something about it by rethinking how we approach it.
Words are important and labels bear a lot of meaning.
Medicalised labels of illness can strip people of their social history and undermine their personhood. So when we say things like “Oh, he’s a schizophrenic”, we make it possible to other them. And forget he is a person too, someone’s son, brother, father or friend who happens to EXPERIENCE schizophrenia. No one says “Oh, he’s a prostate cancer”: we say he has cancer, which maintains his personhood. He isn’t cancer. It is just something he experiences. Rethinking how you talk about it can avoid othering practices. Please don’t render y/our loved ones down to their illness label, because they are more than that!
You can challenge stigma by talking about it, and thinking kindness and compassion. Imagine if the boot was on the other foot… Be kind and stay kind, but always put yourself and your wellbeing first. Chur for reading!