I often hear people talking about “normal” and wanting things to be the way they used to be before they got diagnosed with a mental illness. But normal and the way things used to be is what led to the way things are. Being normal is a lot like sitting in a psychologist’s waiting room–it’s something you do before you get a diagnosis. Instead of going back to “normal”, go to a completely different place, a much, much healthier place:
Sometimes it’s valuable to deal with symptoms so you can then free yourself up to tackle your real problems. But when it comes to recovering from a mental illness, focusing only on the symptoms can cause you to keep on feeding the problem and engaging in lots of unhealthy behaviors that only make the illness worse over the long-term.
If you’ve got a lion on your back gnawing away, and it’s causing you lots of pain, don’t just take something to get rid of the pain and then ignore the lion—it’ll keep on eating until there’s nothing left.
When we’re talking about stigma, we’re really talking about the fear of stigma. People don’t open up about mental health because they’re afraid of what others might say or do. It’s a fear of a possibility. And avoidance of something based on anxieties about other people is no different than any other social anxiety or OCD behavior. In other words: the fear of stigma is part of the illness.
We know that trying to avoid feeling anxious is one of the causes of anxiety disorders. We try to avoid that negative experience and, unfortunately, end up only creating more of the very experience we’re trying to avoid. I tried to fight anxiety for years and years with compulsive avoidance behaviors and it only made me an anxious wreck.
The path to beating anxiety is to realize there’s nothing to beat and, instead, to accepting it into your life. So if we’re trying to fight stigma because we don’t want to experience it, aren’t we engaging in the same unhealthy avoidance behaviors we engage in that we already know only make mental illnesses worse?
I don’t think campaigns to defeat stigma are effective. Having a campaign to defeat stigma is like having a campaign to defeat anxiety. In fact, I think campaigns to defeat stigma only educate people on how to be afraid. I’m really lucky I only watch Korean television. If I saw the how-to PSAs you North Americans put out about bullying, mental illness, and stigma, I’d be terrified to talk about my own mental health.
So how do we get over the fear of stigma? The same way that research shows we get over any fear: by doing the thing we’re avoiding because of that fear. Just as you get over your fear of heights by going to a high place and showing your brain that you can be afraid and still act according to your values, so to do we get over the fear of stigma by putting ourselves in situations we fear being stigmatized in and, instead of reacting to that fear, accepting and acting according to our values.
You can’t defeat a fear of flying by standing firmly on the ground. You can’t defeat a fear of falling by complaining about gravity to everyone you meet. You can’t beat your social anxieties by avoiding people. And we won’t defeat stigma until we stop trying to defeat stigma and instead just start talking about our mental illnesses (yes, it’s a paradox, but it’s a healthy one—learn to love it). Stigma happens, just as planes crash, people fall, and we say stupid things at parties. But do you want the fear of a possibility to control your life?
Don’t get into the habit of thinking there are good places for meditation or bad places. Like many things we do in the hope of making a task easier, we only create barriers when we insist we require something before we do something else. If you find you have trouble meditating in certain places, meditate there more. It will help your meditation skills improve while simultaneously decreasing the excuses in your life.