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Why Labels and Stigmas are So Dangerous

Something negative happened to you in your childhood. You stole candy from your neighbor’s house when you were ten years old. It would be horrible if you had to live the rest of your life being called and thought of as a thief.

This is also true for those with mental health disorders. Just because someone may be diagnosed with depression or anxiety at a point in their life, does not mean they should always be labeled as a depressed or anxious person.  A more helpful way to speak of a mental health disorder is, my sister is someone who struggles with anxiety.  In other words, your sister is separated from her mental health diagnosis. 

When used negatively, labels are dangerous.

What are labels?

The labeling theory was developed in the 1960s. As explained, labeling happens when a person behaves in a way that is considered abnormal or deviant from what society considers normal.

A person is then identified by that negative behavior rather than their individual characteristics.

Labels are used to describe a person, in one word or a few short words. Young children seem to have the most trouble with being labeled.

For instance, teachers sometimes label students as oppositional or defiant. The student may exhibit oppositional behaviors because he or she has a mental health disorder. A child may have severe anxiety which makes them want to isolate. A teacher may interpret this as a defiant attitude.

Labels are not diagnoses.

Labels vs. Diagnoses

While labels are given to people by other people, diagnoses are given by trained medical professionals in the field of psychiatry and mental health. 

Labels are based on how society interprets an individual’s behaviors. If the behavior violates the law, you are labeled a criminal. If you are overly smart, you are labeled a nerd. If you are perceived as too affluent, you are considered snobby.

A diagnosis is obtained after you participate in a lengthy process that involves a Psychiatrist and or Psychologist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who obtained a specialization in the field of mental health. Psychiatrists can prescribe medicine to assist in the treatment of your mental health disorder. A diagnostic assessment is used to help the doctor determine your exact disorder. Your assessment will be compared to the Universal Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to determine the diagnosis code for your illness.

Receiving a diagnosis has many benefits. Treatment is easier to obtain once you know the reason why you need to seek treatment. A diagnosis allows insurance companies to pay for your treatment. In fact, a diagnosis is required by insurance companies to pay a provider.

Once you have a diagnosis, you can acquire valuable information on the disorder. Knowledge is power. Your knowledge can teach you and others about mental illness. By educating others, you will be reducing the stigmas that can follow mental illness. This is not the case with labels.

Labels can have negative effects on an individual and on society. Labels can create stigmas that prevent people from getting help when they need it.

Labels Create Stigmas

Stigmas are described as a person’s negative traits or characteristics that cause others to devalue or think less of them. Stigmas can be very harmful to both the individual and to society.

Mental health stigmas can be damaging to a person’s personal and professional life. Stigmas imply that you are to blame for your own mental health problems. Stigmas suggest you have a choice in developing a mental illness.

While great progress is being made to eliminate mental health stigmas, we still have a long way to go.

Stigmas Deter People from Treatment

It has been found that people avoid getting mental health treatment because they fear what others will think of them. They want to avoid being labeled and only known as their mental health disorder. This fear extends to both personal and professional aspects of a person’s life.

For example, if you are labeled as schizophrenic, even if it is a diagnosed label, you fear you will be turned down for jobs or rejected in relationships. Unfortunately, this is the case for many.

There are things you can do to help extinguish labeling and stigmatization of mental health disorders.

Help Eliminate Labeling

Having a mental illness does not mean you are doomed. Many people with mental health disorders overcome the labeling and the stigmas and go on to lead companies and have healthy relationships. For others, however, it may not be so easy.

Therefore, it is important for you and all members of society to take part in eliminating labels and therefore, eliminating stigmas.

 A few ways to help eliminate labels is to quit acting like mental illness is a secret to feel ashamed of. Talk openly about mental health and the fact that it is an illness just like diabetes or the flu.

The way you speak about mental illness influences others to speak the same way. If you are calling a person with schizophrenia a “crazy lunatic”, then others may do the same. Speak kindly about people with mental illness.

If you can hire someone with a mental illness, do it. If they are qualified for the job, vow not to discriminate against them based on their mental health. If you have co-workers suffering from mental illness, make them feel accepted and welcome on their job.

The more you know the more empowered and better equipped you are to treat the mental health illness you have been diagnosed with. Learning about the different mental illnesses can equip you for times when you have the opportunity to teach others. Most mental illnesses can be appropriately treated so that the person can live a long, healthy and productive lifestyle.

One of the best actions you can take to help decrease labels is to treat others as you want to be treated. The golden rule applies to this situation. Show empathy and compassion for those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

You most likely know someone or have a family member with a mental health disorder. Whether they have depression, anxiety or an eating disorder, you know they are good people. Don’t look at them and see their depression or anxiety. Instead, look at them and see them as a fellow human impacted by obstacles just like you.

By embracing those with mental illness rather than rejecting them, you are serving as a role model for others. Your reactions to others will be contagious. Make sure you spread the positive behaviors necessary to reduce labels.

 


Chris Massman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Chris' training includes Family Systems Theory along with numerous other theories. She believes therapy is an art and chooses the theory she feels will most benefit the individual sitting in front of her. Her specialty lies is in the field of Chemical Dependency and Addictions. Chris is currently seeing individuals, couples and families. Chris is a Clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as well as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Chris has two locations including Tarzana and Agoura Hills, CA.