Handling Conversational Stigma
Being someone who has had schizophrenia for sixteen years, dealing with stigma has been an ongoing battle, and it’s had major affects on how people view me, how they treat me, and how I view and treat myself. It’s been an exhausting process in which I’ve developed some strategies that have helped me to push back and to make changes in my social circles.
I sometimes wonder what good my efforts will be in combatting stigma. There’s an entire world where people that have stigmatizing views, attitudes, and actions, not to mention “stigma is evident in the way laws, social services, and the justice system are structured as well as ways in which resources are allocated” (1). This can feel overwhelming, but I’m not concerned with what I’m up against. For me, it’s about being able to answer to myself and also not being someone who is going to be suppressed or held back from having the same quality of life as everyone else. It’s about being treated equally, talked to as an equal, and being viewed within the same frames of reference everyone else is, because I am the same, and so is everyone else who has had a mental health condition.
There’s also an element to this where I have to take my own side, and I feel turned against myself if I don’t stand up to stigma. It creates more self-stigma when I don’t have some sort of aversion or response when people stigmatize me, and there’s an element of self-love that comes into play. There’s also the risk of internalizing stigma which can affect the way I view myself. It can have negative effects on my friendships, my work, and other elements of my life such as my self-esteem, my personality, and my world view, which are things I’m wanting to protect and improve upon.
Having combatted stigma for a number of years, it gets exhausting, and it’s not something I am combatting every second of every day. I know that it’s going to take major societal changes and major personal changes for everyone in the world to achieve a more lucid and less obstructed view of people with mental health conditions. Knowing this helps me to realize that there are moments where it makes sense for me to challenge stigma, whereas there are other times I just don’t have to if the situation is not right. It also helps me to know that I can just take breaks when I need them or when I feel exhausted. Overall, Global Culture needs to drastically change to effectively combat stigma. However, all the things I can do to educate people within my circles are helpful, they’re important, and they’re good contributions.
Stigma is fairly commonplace societally, and most people don’t know what is or isn’t good or bad to be saying. The majority of people don’t have this subject circulating within their internal monologue and they are not working towards learning more about it. This is a hard truth but having this perspective has helped me to navigate conversations. It has indicated to me that many people don’t know they are making a transgression the majority of the time they do so. They’re just copying what they have seen on TV, movies, literature, comedy, and in every other major media outlet. Quite frequently, stigma is a question of awareness. I feel the majority of people who make mental health transgressions conversationally are not setting out to hurt me, even though it is hurtful and it does sometimes feel intentional.
When I have been negative towards people who have strong levels of bias, many people perceive me as the bad guy, whereas when I have been more positive and benevolent, people are more willing to listen. So in combatting stigma, I’m usually not wanting to embarrass or make anyone feel bad, even if it is a group setting where someone is strongly transgressing. Dolly Chugh is a social psychologist who details some of these processes of challenging stigma in her book “The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias”. Chugh mentions when you challenge transgressors in a negative way, the bystanders who may have been willing to listen to you are less willing to do so. When people feel they are being challenged they many times will be more averse to hearing what I have to say, whereas when they feel like we are on the same team they are more open to feedback. And just as a note, I’ve tried being more outspoken and usually people become more averse to me, rather than actually listening to what I have to say.
I know it’s an injustice that I am the one who has to step lightly around the people who are making aggressions against my mental health condition and my state of being. However, there is a part of me that feels much better when I have kindness and forgiveness within these situations. A great deal of my exhaustion in dealing with transgressions is handling my own negative emotions.
Knowing the audience, knowing the situation, and having a sense of what may or may not work has been essential for me in combatting stigma. In social settings, people generally don’t want to be challenged or forced to think much about their word choice. So knowing this, I realize there is a certain amount of stigma I tend to not challenge just given I am also wanting to maintain connections and friendships. I also realize many people don’t want to be challenged every several seconds and be labeled as stigmatizing regardless of what they are saying. So in many of these instances, I usually just vote with silence.
When the punchline of the joke comes through or the stigmatizing comment is made, being more silent or subtle or not giving the grand reaction of boisterous laughter that someone is looking for says a great deal, and it’s kind hearted. When someone makes a joke that no one laughs at, people get the sense they must have said something wrong. Regardless of who is right, a good portion of people tend to care more about kindness than the content of the conversation and they do not want to be seen or viewed as mean people when they are “just trying to be funny” or “just trying to make a joke” or where I need to supposedly “just lighten up”. Many stigmatizing remarks are made with the intention of making others feel good. So regardless of the seriousness of the transgression, many people will listen to the sentiments by which the comments are conveyed and side with kindness as opposed to righteousness. This means that if I come across as the transgressor in standing up to stigma, many bystanders might still take the other person’s side just given they had a good natured disposition in what they were saying.
There are instances where I am talking to people who have a better sense of social justice, and of the mental health world, and these are times where I might be more frank or open about my thoughts and beliefs. I usually take the approach of realizing I am wanting to maintain the connection and maintain the friendship, and that this is my first priority in addressing the stigmatizing language or comment. These conversations can be hard and I’ve had a few of them.
There was one such instance where a friend kept saying the word psychotic to project how outlandish it would be to make a certain play in a card game. This happened several nights in a row. Within these moments I was furious, as this is a word I really dislike and it always feels incredibly stigmatizing. However, I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the group and make him feel bad. The mood of the card game was also fun and good spirited, so I knew if I said anything within the moment it was going to ruin the fun time for everyone which was not my goal. Again, it was another injustice where I had to hold back, but it made the best sense in this instance in terms of maintaining the friendship and in not ruining the card game for everyone.
I waited until a day or two after and I just sent him a text. I started the text by stating that, “I’m not mad, and I don’t want to cause any trouble, but the word psychotic kinda bothers me.” This is a friend who has known about my condition for years. I think a couple important things to point out in this situation is that people can be really uptight when they feel stress is being put on a friendship. They can also take the defensive when they are being accused of saying or doing something that is discriminatory. Also more importantly, I had known this friend for over 31 years so I wasn’t trying to push him away. This was a response that worked, and in the next card game he stumbled over his words a bit, but he’s made an effort since then to not use that language. When he’s struggling with the language it can feel frustrating and exhausting for me. However, my strategy is to show appreciation for his effort and that he’s doing his best, and that he’s allowed to make mistakes as it’s very hard for many people to change their language and the way they speak. It takes time, effort, and many mistakes to change language which is the start to uprooting these beliefs.
Practical ways to combat stigma
Conversations I have with people about my life – just sharing
People asking if I am a volunteer – mentioning I work full time – breaking down assumptions – being forgiving
Contact, education, protest
Talking about my friendships and fun things I do – worry this might be seen as bragging
Changing the names of things
Changing the names of meetings
People trying to make decisions for us as a group and everyone wanting to help out
Different reactions I am able to give when people make different remarks.
Chugh, Dolly: The Person You Mean To Be, How Good People Fight Bias. Copyright 2018 Harper Collins Books New York, NY.
Corrigan, Patrick W. Watson, Amy C; Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People with Mental Illness: World Psychiatry, 2002 Feb; 1(1): 16-20.
This Post is republished on Medium.
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