Anti-Stigma Mental Health Campaigns Often Ignore Our Realities

By
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A watercolor painting of a person painted in rainbow colors sitting on a the edge of a cliff.

I have to be honest: I am not a fan of anti-stigma campaigns. Or, at least, not the way the campaigns are normally run. Let me explain why:

I am forever grateful to live in a time where openness about mental health issues is being received more positively. I can’t count how often I’ve heard discussion of self-care and compassion for one another’s struggles come out of communities I belong to, especially from folks younger than me. While the conversations can often hit roadblocks related to how to better communicate feelings and complex problems, they are a far cry from times where I felt it was impossible to speak about mental health without fear of judgment. This is a heartening sign.

However, I think these conversations also highlight one of two major reasons why I dislike how anti-stigma campaigns typically operate: they are highly focused on the individual and not their surrounding circumstances.

When I found myself post-college without consistent housing, all of my available funds suddenly had to be diverted to scraping together enough rent and some form of groceries. Any hopes I had for continuing therapy were immediately dashed when I realized could no longer afford it. Whether it was lack of transit to physically reach therapists or financial insecurity making therapy sessions too expensive, therapy was no longer an option for me. Even now, I can only access therapy because of free, local services offered by a sexual assault survivor center.

Because of these experiences, I can’t help but also think of the other Queer and Trans people of color (QTPOC) who are struggling to find affordable therapy services. For QTPOC searching for therapy services near them, a lack of insurance and accessible transportation can make or break any hopes of processing trauma in therapy. Furthermore, considering how often I have heard many of them discuss racism and sexism they experience from practitioners coming from such a white-dominated healthcare sector, I can’t help but feel many anti-stigma campaign promises come off as insincere. Highlighting that therapy and discussing one’s mental health can be healing while not acknowledging how inaccessible these services can be is not only disingenuous, but downright immoral in my eyes.

Moreover, the takeaways from anti-stigma campaigns are framed around personal responsibility and vulnerability in place of structural transformation. These campaigns often suggest that if only attitudes regarding mental health were to change, people would find themselves more receptive to mental health services and treatment as a whole.

Ignore the fact that many people experience discrimination through the lens of stigma from a variety of institutional factors such as racism, sexism, inadequate housing, poverty, and more.

Ignore the fact that much recent research has indicated that mental health issues are strongly connected to a variety of life circumstances such as child abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, loss, etc.

Ignore the fact that if healthcare services, which currently are not receiving much needed funding, receive more patients than they will be even more incapable of providing needed healthcare.

Simply change people’s attitudes and things will be just fine.

My frustration with these campaigns, at its core, comes from how infrequently they do justice to the lives and needs of those with mental health/psychiatric disabilities. To be clear, reducing stigma should be addressed as it has very real effects on people’s willingness to disclose their issues and seek treatment. However, these campaigns strike me as done by either those desiring to be saviors for “poor, mentally ill souls” or those who have experienced mental health issues without acknowledging the impact of societal factors. It is dehumanizing, pitying, and runs a very damaging risk of misinforming others on the needs of marginalized people with (mental health) disabilities without listening to us in full. We deserve better than this and it is time stigma campaigns do better by us.

We deserve anti-stigma campaigns that address the structural components of psychiatrically disabled lives, not simply attitudes towards those socially deemed mentally ill.

We deserve anti-stigma campaigns that work through political measures to address the complex needs of those with mental health issues as disabled people, not to promote a tokenizing attitude toward us that denies a normalization of our full humanity.

Ultimately, I share writer Catia Malaquias’ view that how we as a society treat our most marginalized says more about us than how we treat those already being taken care of and, as it stands, we are providing inadequate care to those with mental health issues. We deserve better than to be remembered as an inconvenience rather than as someone not only with differing needs but also with injustices being ignored.

Difference is a starting point of your humanity and mine. It is time our anti-stigma campaigns acknowledge that rich humanity.


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