Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“Labels Make a Difference”

            The news of Robin Williams’s suicide sent me spinning. I recalled his interviews where he admitted his struggle with substance abuse and depression. The two often go hand-in-hand because many people with depression “self-medicate” with alcohol or drugs. I don’t want to go into the biology of the brain when considering both addiction and depression, but I do want to talk about the label “Mental Illness.”
            Why do we treat individuals suffering from brain chemistry disorders as though they are second class citizens needing to feel shame for their differences? We section off mood and psychotic disorders into an entirely separate category from the rest of our bodies, and that differentiation impacts how our society views wellness. We cling to a mindset that illnesses that affect the brain and personality are personal weaknesses.  
            No one blames the patient who slowly slips away with Alzheimer’s disease, nor ridicules the Parkinson sufferer for not controlling his motions. Instead, we run marathons to find cures for these diseases. And yet we treat patients with depression as though they’ve done something wrong. They are somehow responsible for the malfunctioning within their brains. If they really wanted to, they could “snap out of it” because they have good lives—people who love them, care for them.
            By labeling an entire range of disorders as “Mental Illness”, we’ve fooled ourselves into a belief system that these diseases aren’t as important to treat or cure.  Every time a tragedy rips through a family—like with a suicide; or a society—like with a mass killing, we pretend to care. For a week or two our media bombards us with signs, symptoms and treatments. But nothing really changes.
            And so sadness envelops us the day after another loss. I’ll read all kinds of articles about “Mental Illness” and feel frustrated because the label itself carries its negative connotations. And labels make a difference to that fourteen-year-old girl starving herself to shed another five pounds, to that seventeen-year-old who cuts herself just to “feel something.” Labels make a difference to that mother who cannot bond with her baby, to that alcoholic grandfather who must drink just to function.
Copyright 2014 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman