Stigma(ta)

nutterI’ve written before that words matter . The names we call one another mean something. As the image says, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will also hurt me.”

There are names people use of us – loony, attention-seeker, nutter, psycho; there are phrases used to hurt us: “snap out of it,” “pull yourself together,” “drama queen;” there are misunderstandings of our conditions: “I’m so depressed that my lipstick wore off,” “I’m a little bit OCD,” “those arguments contradict, you’re so schizophrenic!”

Words matter.

Every time someone calls one of us a nutter, every time someone talks about “those” mentally ill people who should be locked away, every screaming headline selling scare stories about us to the public – that is stigma.

Stigma: (1) a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person:the stigma of mental disorder [1]

I have been reading the ever-excellent Mental Health Cop on stigma and happily point you to there, to the @casualstigma twitter account (and the hashtag #casualstigma) for real-life examples of the stigma that people face due to mental health problems.

If you have a mental health condition – you know what I’m talking about when I refer to stigma. Sometimes said from ignorance, sometimes to hurt, when people display a shocking lack of understanding of mental illness, a fear of mentally ill people, prejudices and assumptions then it hurts. It hurts not only in terms of emotions, but in terms of our lives – when you are scared to tell a friend, or new partner, that you have an illness for fear of how they may react; when you are scared to disclose (and scared not to disclose) your condition when applying for a job; when you are under-treated for physical health conditions because some doctors are too happy to say that it must be your mental illness causing your symptoms; when people reject you, won’t speak to you, call you a scrounger and a faker because you are on benefits and they cannot “see” what is wrong with you – all of these things have real-world consequences. Injustice and prejudice is one of the few things that make me angry – and that is one reason why I hate this government and the way that they have made life so hard for people with disabilities – physical and mental – by making the benefits system so difficult, by not listening to doctors, by spreading misinformation and spin in the newspapers and on the television, so that hate crime is up and suddenly everyone is talking about “cheats” – who often, when you listen to their story, are people with invisible mental illnesses that some pundit or keyboard warrior have determined must be put on to get money. I would urge you to check out We Are Spartacus for information about welfare “reform” and how it is affecting the sick and disabled, and what we can do about it.

We are misunderstood, we are marked by what people see as disgraceful, shameful conditions, sometimes we are disliked, mocked, hated. Some of us are marked physically, from suicide attempts and self harm, an extra level of exposure as mentally ill people.

There is a second definition of “stigma.

Stigma: (2) Marks resembling the wounds on the crucified body of Christ, said to have been supernaturally impressed on the bodies of certain saints and other devout persons. [2]

This may seem a very blunt comparison, perhaps even trite, but Christ knows what it is to be like us. More than us. He was mocked, he was ridiculed, had lies told about him, was beaten, was crucified. They hated him without reason, just as people hate lots of groups for no reason – the way some people hate people of colour, or women, or the disabled, or the mentally ill. He was set apart from his society by who he was, by what he was, he was someone different from the rest. A man – but not a normal one, not one who went with the flow, he was someone who stood out by what he said, and what he did, and people didn’t like it much. One minute his cheering followers, the next a baying mob; people are fickle. The mob – all of us – likes the status quo, likes people who are comfortable, who say and do what we approve of – but if you are too different…then you might find yourself attacked. Whether that be on the playground, because you had a big nose, or in adult life because you are depressed, or have an eating disorder, or psychosis or any of the conditions we suffer from, we stand out.

He knows what it is to be different, to be strange, to be odd.

They said he was mad, too. Used the same language to describe him as they do us.

He wasn’t, of course. Mad that is. But he had emotions like any of us, sometimes extreme ones. We get given a very bland Jesus by some people, just meek and mild and moderate. He wasn’t moderate. He got furious – he whipped people out of the temple; he became sad – and wept, and prayed so hard that his sweat was like blood dripping from him. He loved his friends, he loves us, enough to die for us. He understands emotions.

When the time came, and he went through the suffering of the Passion, he met all of us in all our personal torments, our own Golgothas, he suffered through every pain that this sin-soaked world gives us and faced the rejection of the Father for the sins he was bearing. We have not sinned that we would be given mental illness – but sin is the cause of illness, this is not Eden any longer. On that cross, that day, he took the weight, the consequences of sin upon himself – all of us, mental illness too, all the pain that ever has been and ever will be. So, you see, he does understand.

He is forever marked by that event, just as we are marked by uncaring society. We have stigma – he has stigmata. We are marked by madness, by the consequences of a broken world, by the unpleasantness of others and their ignorance – he has been marked by all of these.

We are not Christ, of course. But we can know that he understands, intimately, all that we go through and all that we suffer whether from illness or other people, and that we, who are Christians as well as mentally ill, are, to an extent, sharing in the suffering of God, and he with us.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:17)

References

[1] “stigma”. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. 08 March 2013 <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/stigma&gt;.

[2] “stigma, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 8 March 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/190242?redirectedFrom=stigma&gt;.

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