Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Culture of Labels: Mental Health and Violence

Growing up in Canada, any kid in the ‘90s or early 00s could tell you about the commercials put out by Concerned Children’s Advertisers, a non-profit organization that puts out public service announcements aimed at kids to teach about bullying, drug use, self-esteem, etc. Even today when I turn on the kid’s channels, I may catch a newer version of one of these commercials. But the ones I watched when I was younger still ring in my head, sticking with me for reasons I never quite understood as a kid.

One in particular featured a young teenage girl on a track field, ready to leap into a sprint. And as she did, tiny labels were ripped off of her by the wind, words like whore, emo, lazy, stupid, all fell away, until it was just her, no labels holding her back.

I remember being confused by the message at the end: “Don’t Label Yourself.” What did that even mean? Surely labelling oneself had its benefits. How else did you know where you belonged? How else did you know who you were? In my young mind, things were better labelled and categorized, people were better labelled and categorized, so you knew what to expect when interacting with them.

(One of the CCA's commcericls. Their stuff is really good if you want to check it out.)

And it seems that other young people have thought this way as well. I saw the culture of labelling emerging as I was a young person not long ago, but it seems to have exploded in the years since then. Especially when it comes to mental health.

Just saying those words, mental health, people think Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. They think of the diagnoses, the illnesses in which people are classified as. And it seems these days that everyone wants to be labelled. Kids that come into our mental health treatment facility don’t want treatment, they want a diagnosis. They want a name to slap onto the crazy they feel, a name that comes with a list of dos and don’ts, or as it’s seen, list of what they can or can’t do. They’ve spent so long with all this buzzing energy within them and they want someone else to acknowledge, Yes, what you feel is legitimate. Here’s what we call it.

So, naturally, when people talk about mental health in connection to extreme acts of violence such as a school shooting, a lot of people, including those who work with mental health, are quick to say: But this isn’t a proper reflection of people with mental illness! Not everyone with a mental illness will become violent! Stop comparing mentally ill people to murderers!!

Ugh, hold up here. Are you people serious?

When someone becomes a danger to themselves or others, they are considered ‘mentally unwell.’ A person can become suicidal without needing to be diagnosed with depression. A person can go out of their way to hurt someone without qualifying for a diagnosis of ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ Just because these people aren’t diagnosed with something, DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE MENTALLY WELL.

Mental health =/= mental illness.

Everyone has a state of mental wellness that they uphold. Some people have their wellness disrupted by mental illnesses that develop, i.e., someone finds it harder and harder to function in day-to-day life as they develop depression, exhibit symptoms, and that is the main reason they are unable to function. The reason we even have a diagnosis of “depression” is simply to say “When these symptoms line up, here are the steps to treatment we’ve found that works.” All the diagnosis of “depression” means then, is the cue to use a certain vein of treatment for that individual.

But what happens when something starts affecting a person’s ability to function, but they still don’t qualify for a mental illness? I had a psychiatrist, who has been working with youth with mental health issues for a long time now, come into my office and let out a deep sigh once. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he couldn’t get a doctor to diagnose his client with bipolar disorder because she didn’t fit the guidelines of it, and he couldn’t access much help (like medication) for her unless he had that diagnosis. He said to me, “The thing is, she doesn’t meet enough of the qualifications to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but those mood swings are still there. They’re having a huge effect on her.” Because she didn’t fit the label, professionals all around her were pretending that the symptoms she had didn’t matter. When really, her symptoms and behaviours were severe enough to land her in an agency with Children’s Services.

So then what happens when we as a society decide, mental health discussions shouldn’t take place anywhere near discussions of violence or school shootings? What happens when we conveniently ignore the symptoms and behaviours of violent people because it doesn’t fit into our idea of what a mental illness should look like? I can tell you exactly what happens, because sadly I see it often in my line of work: the person and their issues are pushed to the back burner until they explode and do something that can no longer be ignored.

Do all violent people have mental illnesses? Of course not. But their mental state is jeopardized, where they don’t see the logic of how hurting others and themselves is extremely detrimental to their well-being. Many get wound up in these ideologies of “glory” and “fame” through violence, but where does that need for glory and violence come from? It stems from many places, but often builds up from feelings of hopelessness, feeling alone and isolated, projecting their anger onto other people and convincing themselves they are the cause of their problems. All are behaviours that anyone could exhibit. After all, haven’t we all wanted to blame someone else when we were angry, too emotional to see our own errors in judgement? But when those small things are left to fester within us, grow to a place where suddenly all we think are those negative thoughts, where our day-to-day functioning is impacted, then we are no longer in a state of mental wellness. We wouldn’t qualify for a diagnosis, but the condition of your thoughts doesn’t allow you to reach your full potential. You are mentally unwell and, in a lot of cases, are in need of help.

Mental health or gun control? What will keep our children safe? There’s no easy answer, but it definitely isn’t in turning a blind eye to mental health. Because we ALL have a mental health, we all contribute to it every day—weighing yourself down with stresses and taking the load off with exercise and time to reflect. It’s never a bad thing to seek help when things get out of control—or even when things are just tough, to keep things from getting out of control. After all, most people who fall into toxic thinking don’t even realize or acknowledge that they’re unhappy. They use that anger and bitterness to convince themselves they are happy, or that they’re above or smarter than the rest of the population for the way they see things.

Don’t underestimate the power of a walk outside on your mental well-being. Never underestimate how truly damaging stress can be. We deal with our mental health every day and so often we don’t even think about it, often letting our worldview fall into a “normal” and “crazy” spectrum, where we’re either one or the other. When really it’s a compounded interest of everything we think, do, and experience. It can seem far-fetched that something as simple as “toxic thoughts” could lead someone to walking into a school and killing as many innocent people as they could before taking their own life. After all, everyone has toxic thoughts from time to time. But the fact of the matter is those people who commit these horrific acts are often not mentally ill (since a lot of mentally ill people, the illnesses people think of as “the crazies,” wouldn’t even function well enough to follow through with a scheme of that scale). They are normal people whose toxic thinking led them to a place where they are very mentally unwell, often to a point they don’t realize it.

And I think that’s what frightens people the most. That’s why they use words like “crazy,” and “mentally ill,” and “psychotic,” when we refer to these people. Because we don’t want to think for even a second that those monsters could be anything like us.

1 comment:

  1. This looks like it was a very cathartic meditation on the nature of mental health. I hope you are feeling well and doing well. It was nice to take a moment out of my day to read through these musings and think about how I am feeling about myself and my mental health.