Mental Health Awareness Month: Let’s Talk Stigma and Discrimination
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
Before I get into this post, I want to acknowledge that language is contested and evolving. The very use of terms like illness, diagnosis, disorder, issues, or problems can be risky. They are obviously English words with very specific meanings, typically with negative connotations that project said negativity on the pathologized person embodying said illness or so-called disorder or disease.
Some do not like using identity markers like mental illness, because they do not believe that who and how they are, how they emote or express themselves, and move through the world in their mind-body’s is not pathological, deviant, wrong, or an illness. For others, they think we need to focus more on wellness, rather than on limiting frameworks that disempower. Check out Toronto-based activists Ravyn Wingz or Syrus Marcus Ware on this topic, or Sonya Renee Taylor too. They all have lots to say about how we frame mad and mentally disabled people, medical/biochemical models, vs. socio-political and disability justice models of disability.
I use mental health-related issues or mental health illness here from a medical model which endorses pathologizing differences and those read as different. Subversion only goes so far when locked in outdated language. I have complicated views on terminology and will stick with what is convenient for this post, though not necessarily my personal views or even right. Meeting folks where they are and being vulnerable that my own framework needs improvement. So, let’s get into today’s topic.
To put it plainly, people inside and outside of the Black community typically don’t care to, or, check for folks with mental illness. Instead, they distance themselves, shun them, blame them, out-cast, shit on them, judge, destroy, or are prejudiced against them. Really awful stuff for the most part. Even from people who think they are good, moral, right, and just. We all fail someone struggling with mental wellness.
Stigma and discrimination are real and perpetuated by even the most well-meaning individuals.
The Canadian Mental Health Association defines stigma as a “negative stereotype.” For example, the idea that people with mental illness are crazy, lazy, unintelligent, embarrassing, cringe, dangerous, or threats to society. We create assumptions to suggest that they have no bodily autonomy when in crisis. And in some cases, believe that they deserve to be medicated against their will, tranquilized like animals, locked up in cages like criminals, or killed by law enforcement and community members alike, because they are viewed as unruly and dangerous, disposable and not human.
Be honest: what are some of the stereotypes you have fallen into even just about me. What are the things you say about folks with neurodiversity like me (with depression or anxiety)? What names do you call us? What jokes come to mind? This seemingly light-hearted candor? Are they recycled versions of how others outside of our communities see or once saw us? Are we okay with perpetuating these stereotypes? How do we manage them when they’re true? Is it different when we do it to each other? What happens when we too internalize the messaging and struggle with the same mental health challenges but we cannot admit to also being the same as those we judge because seeing ourselves as different feels too shaming because we’re so used to judging and shaming others that we pretend we aren’t like? What would be so bad about being mentally ill yourself? What informs your decision or fear and response? Who taught you that it was bad?
While these stereotypes are used to harm most Black people and have deadly material consequences for us in the end, like incarceration, police brutality, getting kicked out of home, or abandoned and disowned by our families, being left homeless and poor, medicalized, or killed, when it comes to, say, for example, white men, these stereotypes are meant to protect them.
If they are dangerous and pose a threat to the community, it was not their fault, not who they innately are, they aren't inherently violent. It was their mental illness, we are told. As we are asked to find some semblance of compassion and make meaning of the dangerous violence they engage in, which typically is calculated and well-intentioned, rooted in hatred and misinformation. "No, they had a hard life, can’t you see? Where is your empathy? Leave them alone! Their mothers and families are not to blame. They did the best they could. Buy them Burger King on the way to jail. Make sure they come out of their crimes alive. Their lives matter, worthy, valuable, superior, so real."
The action of their badness gets justified as mental illness, meant to evade them of their crimes. See for example, how we frame mass murders enacted by white men like the one in Buffalo more recently. Sending well-wishes to all whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence and white supremacy.
Meanwhile, communities with intergenerational trauma that are provoked, incited, and intentionally triggered, when we react and act out violently (take Will Smith for instance), well, “no, no, no. No excuse for your violence, see. 10-year ban for you. Life in prison for you. Forced medication for you too. You all should have known better. We blame your mamas for failing your entire monolithic community, and those despicable ghettos. You lazy, low-life’s have a choice. We find you insane, but don’t dare claim insanity here. No matter your mental and emotional well-being, mental illness is not an excuse. No act of violence is tolerated.” Unless if criming while white that is.
I myself have struggled with stigmatizing others, as well as myself. I have also been on the receiving end of it. I've found myself excusing away my bad behavior as crisis, survival, mental illness, or neurodiversity. So don’t get me wrong, the irony is not lost on me. But if you think you’re any different than me and others, guess again. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t stigmatized mental illness, used it as an excuse for bad behavior, or hasn’t been a recipient of mental health-related stigma and discrimination. We all get so much wrong, fall into so much confusion, and reproduce harmful disinformation.
Stereotypes of mad and mentally ill people don’t help; it only results in discrimination.
The Canadian Mental Health Association defines discrimination as “unfair treatment due to a person’s identity, which includes race, ancestry, place of origin, color, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability, including mental disorder.” They go on to add, “acts of discrimination can be overt or take the form of systemic (covert) discrimination. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods, and facilities, without discrimination due to the identities listed above.” For them, “stigma is the negative stereotype and discrimination is the behavior that results from this negative stereotype.”
Stigma and discrimination push many of us into silence and isolation. That is if people even believe we are sick in the first place. I’ve read stories of Black women having a difficult time getting anyone to believe their physical illnesses or disabilities, never mind their mental health challenges.
I recently read Irene Antonia Diane Reece’s chapter in You Are Your Best Thing, titled, My Journey. In it, they share being born with a pituitary tumor. Symptoms started to appear around the age of 5, starting with 5-hour long nosebleeds, followed by vision issues. They write about needing glasses, but no one believes them.
“I was told time and time again I was seeking attention. By the time high school came around, I was defeated. I developed major symptoms: unbearable pain and lactation. I kept those a secret for four years because I didn’t have the strength to defend myself, to be shot down for attention-seeking behavior once again. I found myself creating an art piece to make my voice hear: “I experience pain. My pain is real-I am human-I matter-I matter!” they write on page 150.
And this is for a medical condition non-mental health-related. Imagine what people have to deal with when folks don’t think mental illness is real.
It feels impossible to get anyone to believe that your symptoms are not only real but debilitating sometimes, hence why some forms of mental illness are classified as disabilities. Like Irene, folks with mental health-related difficulties are told they are being dramatic, attention-seeking, acting white, too weak, cry-babies, emotional, too sensitive, faking it, wanting attention clout chasers, emotionally manipulative, toxic, negative, complainers, deserving of it, cursed by it, or that they received it as punishment for their sins, you name it.
As bell hooks (2005) once reminded us, “some Black women mask health challenges like depression in silence and isolation, performing “normalcy” in public, even while they suffer in private. hooks said, “many of us suffer periods of suicidal depression that no one ever notices…though we know we are suffering life-threatening ‘blues’” (2005, p. 80). Instead, we persevere and are resilient. To quote Ghanaian American writer Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (2003), “Depression teaches you the fine art of multiplicity. You become adept at wearing the right mask for the right person on the right occasion” (p. 34). Makes us feel unsafe in sharing our vulnerabilities with others, so we keep them to ourselves. We don’t do this instinctively or even because we want to. It’s the social context that informs these quite rational decisions, though counter-intuitive and harmful.
Mbembe (2017) shared that the Black body in pain “arouses only more disgust” (p. 107). So rarely are Black women met with compassion, understanding, empathy, and support. This is why I’m so sick of the performative bullshit when folks die by suicide and suddenly, everyone pretends that they actually cared or gave a shit.
Stop it. You know you were just shaming people as weak yesterday. You still laugh at people when they dare show any emotion other than anger and rage. You’re disgusted by tears and certain people crying. You feel no remorse or empathy for some people's struggles. Don’t front like you weren’t partaking in online and offline bullying or real-life hating. Stop acting like you don’t judge, mock, or humiliate people that are different from you. Just stop. Shut up. Enough.
Just stay silent when someone dies by suicide then. Don’t show up for people in death when you weren’t around for them in life.
Unless you’ve ever been driven to the point of considering suicide or attempting it, you’ll never understand the maddening rage I feel when I see another life gone too soon by death by suicide. No one should kill themselves. Each time I have ever wanted to take my own life it was because I perceived those around me had failed me, that I had failed myself, that there were no other options left because life was too agonizing, torture too great that death felt like the most viable option.
So yes, talk about chemical imbalances, but also talk about the imbalance in social supports. Speak of poverty and low income or feeling alone when in a crowd and surrounded by wealth and resources. The imbalance is not only medical but also socio-cultural and political too. We have to own that we are each and all to blame for deaths by suicide. I go so far as to frame it as aiding and abetting in some form of murder (metaphorically speaking). Again, I want to be clear that this episode asks us to consider how mental health stigma and discrimination can make life so unbearable for some that the violence of mental health stigma and discrimination further drives people suffering in silence and isolation into deeper suicide ideations and or attempts. This is speaking specifically to those who engage in stigma and discrimination. This is not meant to shame or blame loved ones who are supportive and do their best. I'm talking about the haters who don't care, those who wouldn't mind if some died by suicide because they don't value their lives in the first place, and set out to intentionally make living agonizing
You cannot make life hard for people to live in inhumane conditions, then say they killed themselves. Not when you helped drive them to their deaths and stood by in silence as bystanders, watching them struggle, failing to intervene. And I don’t mean this on an individual level, because parents and families who have lost folks to death by suicide get rightfully enraged. No one wants to be blamed for such a tragic loss. And also, we have to look at all of it, especially the top-down stuff we can’t so easily control.
Especially if we look at the harms and great lengths systems of domination like governments that repeatedly cut funding to social and human services, making living life terribly unbearable for some. Who wants to live in these dire circumstances day in and day out? Not most highly sensitive people who already feel everything too much and at an added intensity. You can medicate us all you want, but if nothing changes externally in our environment, if life is still shitty to wake up to, no matter the dosage, no doubt we’ll be on medication for the rest of our lives.
There are too many resources on this planet to not share equitably. There is no reason we can’t extend compassion and empathy to one another. There is no justifying why people ask for help and are ignored. Or blamed for not reaching out when we don’t create safe enough spaces for them to do so. Mind what you say about mental health this month and every month thereafter. People are listening to how you talk about others. Even if they haven’t disclosed their own challenges with you.
You might be pushing them into silence and isolation. Driving them to want to kill themselves too. And stop acting like you didn’t see it coming or play like you’re shocked if unfortunately, they do. It’s disgusting. As Jaiya John says, “try softer.” In true form to how mad this topic makes me, pun intended, I don’t care if you like, subscribe, or share. I hope you do though because at least we’re keeping the conversation going.
Thanks for stopping by. I do appreciate your support. Remember, this was a self-drag too, we’ve all got to do better.
Until next time, in solidarity.