There is a stain spreading across North America that is causing untold hardship to people with emotional distress. It is clear from the growing number of people seeking mental health services that many people in our society are suffering due to a variety of social conditions including family disruption, economic hardship, and alterations in social structure. The need to understand the issues that lead to emotional distress, and to help people deal with their distress is of crucial importance. The mental health industry has chosen, rather than engaging in understanding, to promote labelling as a way of dealing with emotional issues. Placing the stain of a disorder on someone, implying these disorders are biological illnesses, and then talking about destigmatizing mental illness, does little to help actual people. Yet, most of the major mental health organizations are promoting the belief that emotional distress is always an “illness” and then spending funds to destigmatize these illnesses. In a recent interview in Maclean’s magazine, David Johnson, the Governor-General of Canada, named these two issues, that mental illness is like any other biological illness and the importance of destigmatizing, as being crucial aspects in addressing mental health.
While no one in society should be stigmatized by any aspect of their person, this approach in dealing with emotional distress can be very damaging. It is unfortunate that those with severe mental illness, like schizophrenia, will experience some aspects of social rejection, including having to live in poverty, regardless of any ad campaign. Most of the industry’s public relation campaigns, seemingly oriented towards a greater acceptance of mental health issues, are not aimed at the understanding of the serious mentally ill, but tend to show the average people with significant emotional distress. These ads, usually, directly or inadvertently, promote the biological cause issue, and will more than likely lead to people being diagnosed and placed on medication, rather than leading to our society understanding the importance of dealing with complex issues causing emotional distress. A delightful exception to this is a recent ads created by Companies Committed to Kids, that show parents arguing behind a young girl, with a strong message about the impact of the family on mental wellness. This ad avoids all labelling and addresses the roots of emotional distress. Bravo!!
The overuse and misuse of DSM diagnoses can interfere with proper treatment. The DSM has always only been meant to be a guide. Most people in real life do not fit well into any particular diagnosis, though can be squeezed into multiple diagnoses if one really tries.
In his paper “A Non-Pathologizing Approach to Emotional Trauma”, Robert Stolorow writes: “The DSM is a pseudo-scientific manual for diagnosing sick Cartesian isolated minds. As such, it completely overlooks the exquisite context sensitivity and radical context dependence of human emotional life and of all forms of emotional disturbance. Against Descartes and his legacy, the DSM, I am contending that all emotional disturbances are constituted in a context of human interrelatedness. One such traumatizing context is characterized by relentless invalidation of emotional experience, coupled with an objectification of the child as being intrinsically defective. No wonder receiving a DSM diagnosis can so often be retraumatizing!”
Labelling people as mentally ill, and running ads that we should not stigmatize these people, can lead to people being retraumatized and feeling more emotionally isolated. While people may initially feel some sense of relief in receiving a diagnosis, in the long-run, being stuck with inadequate treatment modalities, having chronic symptoms and side effects of medication, and feeling that there is something innately wrong with you, can lead to increased despair. People with emotional distress don’t need to be destigmatized. They need to feel better.