Pink & Blue Mummyland

Pink and blue parenting through pink and blue moods….

Stigma on my doorstep

This week I have experienced some of the worst stigma and misunderstanding I have come across so far in my life with regards to mental illness.

Fortunately I wasn’t there to witness it. In the heat of anger, a family member said (or shouted) of me: “she doesn’t actually have bipolar – it’s just another excuse to be lazy.”

There are so many issues within this one comment that I hardly even know where to begin. The hurt and pain that it’s caused has been huge, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Cable Guy so angry. But the personal fury aside, the whole situation has made me think about how we tackle stigma in general, and specifically within those closest to us. I don’t get to stop being a part of my family just because they have some ignorant and arrogant views of mental illness. It’s not like Facebook friends who I can just block – I need to figure out how to be related to them whilst essentially unable to change them.

I’ve decided that changing people’s minds about mental illness is broadly a two stage process. First, we have to stop people saying what’s on their mind; secondly, we have to stop them thinking about it. My relative’s comment is a problem in two ways – firstly that they could say it at all (which has left me, and many people around me, incredulous), but also that the thought was there in the first place. As far as I understand it, when most people are angry, they don’t just make stuff up to say. In the heat of the moment, something they think deep in their consciousness, which they usually keep hidden, bursts out, with its barbs and sharp edges set on a trajectory to hurt whoever they are angry with.

The question I’ve been asking myself is, what is the point of changing what people do or say, if we can’t change the way they think? What point is there in my relative apologising if she still thinks that when I say I’m depressed it’s really just that I can’t be bothered to do anything?

Here’s what I’ve come up with. And I must say, I think its ingenious. It turns the current treatment of mental illness entirely on its head.

You know how the NHS is determined that the cure for all things mental health related is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)? In this case I think it is the answer – but not for the patient. It’s all the people around us that need it! People who don’t have understanding of mental illness need to be taught the practise of what therapists call ‘thought stopping’. This is quite an old idea, but essentially claims that you can change the way you think, and therefore how you feel and behave. The basis of the technique is that you consciously issue the command, “Stop!” when you experience repeated negative, unnecessary or distorted thoughts. You then replace the negative thought with something more positive and realistic (read more here). Of course, to start off with, you might need someone else to issue the short, sharp ‘stop’ – but I can think of plenty of volunteers who will be glad to shout loudly in the face of someone who has just said something incredibly stupid about mental illness.

So, the we are. The newest way to deal with stigma regarding mental illness. Treat the non-patient, not the patient. It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard recently……

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