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Bart Brewer: We shouldn't let diagnoses blind us from the people behind those labels

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all use labels in our daily lives. Imagine a world without adjectives for a moment, and you'll realize how reliant we are on labels to describe the world around us.

This is not inherently a bad thing; it's a part of how we all communicate. The issues start when we begin to label those around us in ways that don't conform with how those individuals label themselves. Mislabeling, whether it be intentional or unintentional, can have effects on the mental health of those who are mislabeled.

In the general field of health, we know that certain diagnoses have stigmas that are attached to them. These stigmas can impact a person's relationships and prevent them from seeking out further care. The same holds true when it comes to mental health. If I were to, for example, say that someone had OCD, there are no doubt several things that may spring to your mind regarding this condition. These thoughts are likely influenced by the stereotypes that revolve around such a label, and as such will often have negative qualities to them. This can lead someone to then think negatively of that person.

Stigmas associated with different mental health diagnoses can have many other affects, such as:

• Reluctance to seek help or treatment.

• Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others

• Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing

• Bullying, physical violence or harassment

• Health insurance that doesn't adequately cover your mental illness treatment

• The belief that you'll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation

This kind of thought process leads us away from helping those in need, as these stigmas often drive us to distance ourselves. By using other label that aren't associated with these kinds of stigmas and stereotypes, or just not using label in these instances all together, people will be more likely to help, and those who live with mental health issues are more likely to reach out.

Often when we discuss people who have mental illness or mental health issues, we forget that they are still a person. Teri Brister, chief program officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has more than 30 years of experience working in mental health care. She is the author of NAMI Basics and the co-author of NAMI Homefront.

"People are more than their illness," Brister said. "We would never say 'Teri is cancer' or 'Teri is breast cancer.' You would refer to someone who has bipolar disorder or someone who has schizophrenia."

All too often, we speak about people with mental health issues in this way, even if we aren't actively aware of it. This is because this way of talking about mental illness is quite ubiquitous in our society, whether it be in mainstream media depictions or news articles talking about it. Bart Brewer

So how can we improve this? Simply put, we shouldn't let diagnoses and labels blind us from the people behind those labels. We should treat them with the same respect and care in our language as we would with anyone experiencing a physical health issue.

You can read the full interview with Teri Brister, which also features several other mental health experts, at this link.

Putting people before their labels is key to understanding who they are and the challenges that they face. Cindy Tillory runs the blog "Late Start," which focuses on mental health awareness. She's worked to let go of the labels that she has been given throughout her life and has experienced firsthand the challenges that come with being labeled.

"I became obsessed with the "schizoaffective" label and began to isolate myself even further from the small pool of people who cared about me," she says. "Unsurprisingly, this isolation only made my mental health worse."

In the end, by gaining support from peer groups and recontextualizing her labels, Cindy was able to take power back from them. "Who we are beyond our appearances, diagnoses and circumstances is far more important than the labels themselves."

You can read Cindy's story here.

Bart Brewer is the newsletter editor for Clackamas County's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


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