How many times have we heard, “Joe is a Schizophrenic?” Or “Lucy is Bipolar.” I don’t think Joe or Lucy, or their family members appreciate being branded and identified by their diagnosis. This has been an accepted practice for so long by society and even mental health professionals, that we have failed to see how inappropriate and sometimes disrespectful it is. We label and define people all the time for a particular issue or quality in their life. Let’s take medical conditions for example:
- Margaret is a diabetic.
- James is an epileptic.
- Sergio is a quadriplegic.
- Cameron is a deaf/mute.
We could insert race, religion, sexual orientation, and any number of other things as well. What seems more appropriate to you?
- “That is Cameron over there. He’s a deaf/mute, concert pianist.”
- “That is Cameron over there. He is such an inspirational guy. He plays concert piano.”
Number one defines him as a deaf mute, and a concert pianist. There is nothing wrong with being either of those things, and neither makes him less or greater than anyone else. But before he is either of those things, he is Cameron, and an inspirational guy. I am not trying to split hairs. But do you get the idea?
Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The Danger and Destructiveness of Stigmas
Some may take issue with those examples. They might say because it is a given fact that the people mentioned in the above list do indeed have those diagnoses and not all are necessarily worthy of being categorized as derogatory. So with respect I would pose the question, “Why does having a mental health diagnoses, or in Cameron’s case, not being able to hear or speak, have to be a considered a shameful or derogatory thing as opposed to someone having diabetes? Why is having diabetes not considered derogatory but bipolar is? Enter stigma. The definition of Stigma is “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”
Stigmatizing those whom we do not understand or are different from us is pervasive in every culture; it has been that way from the beginning of time and will be until the earth ceases to turn. We all fall prey to stigmatizing. We may never completely overcome these tendencies 100 percent, but it is a worthy and necessary endeavor to make the effort. By not doing so we will continue to perpetuate and excuse tearing down and rejecting other people who are different or have challenges we don’t relate to. Most people want a peaceful world, a world of love and acceptance for one another. But we expect it to happen by everyone being just like ourselves. Peace and love, however, come when we embrace everyone as valuable human beings, including their struggles and differences. The world will be a better place when we respect and value every human life and any challenges they may happen to have (that includes you and me).
Having a mental health diagnosis myself, I can tell you if I hear someone label me or someone else with my same disorder, it hurts. I knew someone once who knew I had bipolar disorder. We were driving along and this person began to tell me about a family member, referring to them as a “crazy, bipolar, (expletive).” I reminded her that I had this disorder. Trying to make me feel better she said, “Oh, your not crazy like my family member.” She missed the point. She was defining and labeling her relative not only by their diagnosis, but also by labeling them as crazy (along with an expletive). I explained the disorder to her and the difference from being “crazy”. I told her people like myself and her family member need understanding, patience, and compassion. Certainly both parties in her situation could benefit from boundaries, but extending respect and reaching out would allow for a meaningful transformation within herself and her relationship with family member.
Respecting, Valuing, and Embracing Differences and Uniqueness
If everyone agreed on everything, if we all loved the same people, places, and things, and everyone had the same struggles or no struggles, we would never learn anything or be challenged to grow; we would be complacent and indifferent; life would stagnate and be endlessly boring. Uniqueness and differences are what keep life interesting and ever changing. It is so with our struggles and challenges as well. There is something to be said for being able to help those who are struggling with something you are, or have struggled with. But learning about people who have different challenges than you and reaching out to find some commonalities will make for a richer life, foster compassion, and make your relationships with those people a cherished gift in your life.
What could be more meaningful than people from every walk of life, and all their varied challenges coming together and loving and supporting each other. If we want to be understood, loved and accepted, it starts with seeking to understand, love and accept others. What you want others to be for you, you must first be for them. Saint Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer says it beautifully:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.