The reduction/elimination of stigma towards mental illness is an admirable goal. However, as with most things related to mental health and society, I often see this issue discussed in a way that feels somewhat surface level.
There’s basically one main reason why stigma exists. Here’s a breakdown of it, and why stigma isn’t an isolated thing we can do away with by espousing more information in the form of statistics and stories (although I fully encourage you to share your stories—bearing in mind that they are just stories, of course).
No problem exists in isolation; all things are interdependent. This piece of knowledge is crucial to understanding ourselves and creating a healthier world.
Our current paradigm measures the worth of a human being directly by their economic output. For real. This is made obvious by the fact that people with less money die of treatable things all the time, even though the power of money is upheld by nothing but widescale delusion.
Stigma is not about people collectively misunderstanding the reality of mental illness. They’re actually seeing it clearly and noticing that those who are mentally ill tend to not to be so good at playing the do-career-get-stuff-climb-ladders game. One’s success or failure at this game determines whether or not they are valuable individuals in the eyes of the machine, and sadly, often in the eyes of the individual as well. This belief in turn compounds depression and anxiety because shame makes everything worse.
Whether or not you personally believe in this form of measurement (and I hope you don’t!), it is a view that gets conditioned into us by the larger culture day in and day out. This valuation of human life is where stigma comes from, and it is this deep-seated mindset about human “worth” that must be overturned before stigma can cease to exist.
Right now, I’m on leave from work because I’ve decided to discontinue my psychiatric medication. I’m feeling out my new brain, taking a lot of baths and naps, meditating, exercising, reading up on yogic psychology, writing, and generally doing whatever it is my body needs at any given moment. This whole process is necessary for me to be the healthiest (and best) me that can exist. It also feels far more responsible than anything I’ve ever done.
But essentially, I’m “doing nothing.” My current value through the economic lens is quite low, whereas someone who gets a lot done, spends money, and builds businesses is simply considered more important. This type of thinking is based on about a million layers of delusion that I’m not going to try and take down here.
It feels important to note that many “successful” people often have tremendous neuroses they are specifically trying to avoid/compensate for with big busy lives. The truer truth is that those who hoard resources at the expense of others are much sicker than a person who doesn’t want more than they need. They are unaware of their sickness; the lack of awareness is precisely what makes them more sick. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” applies here. Thousands of years later and it’s still simple unconsciousness which drives this system.
I know I’m healing and growing in ways that will ultimately lead to new heights (whatever that means), but those things have no tangible function under this paradigm. Genuine human development (i.e. beyond an ego) is often discouraged and shied away from because of this. It’s like, if healing and growth don’t have an end result of more money (or love or whatever it is you’re lacking), what’s the point?
From the egoic perspective, progress can only be measured egoically, when there’s so much more to learn and gain outside of this construct. You can never know what the result of the path will be, because it requires deliberate steps into unknown territory. It is scary and comes with absolutely no guarantees.
But we can pretty much guarantee that if we remain attached to financial wealth as the defining feature of well-being and security, we will turn our backs on growth time and again. It’s not that money on its own is “good” or “bad” (and if your path brings it to you, awesome), but that many people see losing money as The Worst Thing, even when doing so is necessary to get well or to help others get well.
I have no reason to believe that my (or anyone else’s) highest potential will result in money. The vastness of human potential lies far beyond this little idea of success, and the feeling of having money cannot compare to the richness of touching the infinite inner dimension. Global change is dependent on understanding that material wealth always plays a very small role in one’s attainment towards abundant joy.*
In the end, “worth” in and of itself is a conditioned delusion. We are all simply here, living and breathing and being. We have come with unique traits and talents; some of them lend themselves to financial wealth and others do not. Neither is better or worse. We can learn to appreciate the variations in human ability without measuring each other (and ourselves) in a crude, hierarchical way. And as always, the only way such hierarchies will begin to really fall away is when we individually cease to view each other through the limiting labels we cling to.
If all humans would see through all delusion at once, stigma would disappear along with a lot of things we know are very unhealthy for life on Earth.
*It’s getting a bit old seeing the word “abundance” thrown around as a synonym for “financially wealthy.” Right now, if you’re reading this, you are enough. That’s the whole truth and trick of being abundant.
Secondly, mental illness really can be quite scary and uncomfortable. I have a lot less to write on this matter, because that’s basically it. People who are in psychotic episodes can be totally unpredictable. Unless you’ve been there and/or had extensive training on compassionate care for fragmented human consciousness, witnessing these experiences can be unsettling. I say this as someone who has been acutely psychotic.
There’s a lot more to dig into about the fear of losing one’s mind, which a lot of people (particularly those who undergo major spiritual shifts) harbor. When the mind is “everything,” the loss of it is naturally interpreted as horrific. I’m not going to extrapolate on all that here, because it isn’t as directly related to stigma as the other stuff. Still, it feels relevant to mention that our fears of extreme madness are generally the result of us all being a little mad.
Given the complex and deeply-rooted nature of stigma, it can feel like “okay, so, what do we do?”
I feel this way about all the suffering in the world, and my answer is always the same: Cultivate a life based on eliminating the delusive ways you view yourself and others. Delusional beliefs are innumerable; there is always work to do. Most of us have dozens and dozens of them that go unexamined because the loss of a belief often results in external changes that the ego interprets as inconvenient or undesirable. (Plus it feels like we are “less,” and the ego never likes that.)
At the “end,” when you have at least a sliver of awareness about the nonsense you’ve been telling yourself, live from what you know with love and intensity. (I really am trying my best to do this.) Make the process the goal and there can be no such thing as failure. Commit to this path and remember that you’re always on it, even when you “fail” by judging and/or abusing yourself.
We’re not talking about quick-fixes anymore, friends, and we’re not talking about the “little I” that wants the path to result in ego-based success. We’ve gotten smarter than that. “Getting rid of stigma” will require a fundamental shift in the way we see ourselves, just like all other true change. We can do it.