The following is an excerpt from a keynote panel I participated in with Dr. Heather Stuart on Mental Illness Stigma on June 21, 2018.
I think when we use the word stigma it can be a disservice. It becomes a boogyman for those who find its flavour and it seems a less harmful substance for those who administer it. I was not even familiar with the term stigma in the 1980’s which may be why I prefer the term shame. I think we all experience or have experienced different forms of stigma for various reasons. What makes mental health stigma so dangerous is the uniqueness of the experience. I can identify with psychosis, depression, mania and more but those terms seem trite to the realities of such and the comradery of other forms of stigma do Not exist for me.
I recently visited an optometrist. The lenses are switched and we are asked “better …or worse?” When healthy I strive to choose that which offers a clearer view. When I am unwell I start choosing the lens that Feels correct. My stigma and stigmatism frustrate but it becomes familiar. I recently asked myself, which is greater; self stigma or societal stigma? The image that came to mind was a terrarium. Societal stigma exists and acts upon the individual but that which fogs the glass most are the processes within.
To me stigma is a veiled judgement but in my sensitivities I can see the hearts and forms as they maneuver to safer spaces. My father and step mother had a sheep farm. Sheep wander to graze but when the border collies are pushing them where the shepherd calls; they follow the same path. The pasture areas were a series of pathways. They lead to the barn, the pond etc. These pathways illustrate two areas of significance. One is mine. My mind has many pathways that lead to points of pain. I see or hear things and I am faced with the very things I seek shelter from. The other relates to stigma. When we are presented with a mentally ill person our minds travel well worn paths.
We also compartmentalize. A sheep farm is often a system of segregation. The ram is sometimes left in a paddock, the male lambs are eventually shipped off. The ewes that have lambed are left in the open area of the barn and orphaned lambs are brought into the farmhouse.
In caring for and processing a sheep herd the farmer uses ear tags with identification numbers to manage genetics and tend to the herd. As sheep are cared for sometimes the tag on the ear is of no use so the farmer uses a big grease pencil to mark the nose or back of the sheep that have been cared for. The mark is a way to keep track of feet trimmed or which ones have been inoculated etc.
Stigma is similar but at times with less planning, purpose and on levels we are not conscious of. The labelling; the branding marks of stigma allow the one or the group using the grease pencil to flee to the pond, the barn or some point of psychological safety. We are sheltered from our fears and we can nourish and replenish our perceptions of self. It allows the mind of the marker to safely segregate and build fences around misconceptions, misunderstandings and the unusual.