As we wrap up mental health awareness month, I’d like to share a story of how I recently watched close to 7000 people be manipulated into further stigmatizing mental health.
A stadium full of good-hearted citizens mostly applauded loudly and cheered in response to one woman’s statement stigmatizing mental health. It’s easy to have grace for these folks, and at the same time, not even twenty minutes prior, we had all learned a valuable lesson.
If not chosen carefully, our words can oppress. Our actions can oppress. The woman’s words oppressed. The crowd’s actions oppressed. My heart sank.
Let me set the stage; my husband and I were enjoying our Satur-date at the TEDxPortland, held at the Moda Center (which gets an A+ for accessibility). It was a much-needed day of fun. We listened wholeheartedly to thought leaders and innovators.
Trailblazers (pun intended) such as Dr. Tran taught us how his team reproduces T-cells and is helping to cure cancer. And game-changers who tapped into their inner agency and found ways to create hope by using yard signs during times that can feel hopeless.
From engineer Tatiana Mac we learned the importance of choosing our words with curiosity and care. Tatiana taught us that we repeat systemic oppressions when we repeat words or phrases without knowing the history.
Then a surprise guest was introduced, who happens to be an unaffiliated candidate currently running for the position of Oregon’s governor. The energy in the room of over 7000 people shifted from hope and empowerment to restlessness.
People in the audience started to shout out questions about the guest’s position on guns and gun reform, which she gave. She stated, “I think we have so divided this debate on gun, no gun, that we are losing track of some of that stuff in the middle ground.”
And then she did something ever so slight, something I have heard so many people do despite their beliefs on gun reform. She misused this wrongly given platform to further stigmatize mental health; she said, “And that stuff in the middle ground is — we have, by any definition, a shitty mental health system.”
Silently, in my head, I screamed what we had just learned from the engineer Tatiana, “CHOOSE YOUR WORDS WITH (CAPITAL-F EXPLETIVE) CURIOSITY AND CARE! DID YOU NOT JUST LISTEN TO THE PREVIOUS SPEAKER?!”
Next, an arena full of people cheered and applauded this statement. Within fractions of a second, my inner voice switched from screaming to despair, frustration, and heartbreak, “A (lowercase-f expletive) stadium full of people who were just taught our words stigmatize and oppress – applauded one of the most stigmatizing statements I’ve heard all month. How?”
THE HOW: UNDERSTANDING MANIPULATION TACTICS AND HOW THIS SUPPORTS STIGMA
The candidate hooked the stadium full of people with her manipulation tactic and logical fallacy, and the people gobbled it up hook, line, and sinker. Logical fallacies are deceptive and false arguments. The independent politician used the strawman tactic, attacking mental health systems versus the issue of gun regulations. These tactics are commonly used in politics and debate settings.
Regarding violence and mental health, it is easy to blur the lines. Do we need more support for our mental health systems to support those with mental health issues? The answer is easy; Yes. Regarding this much-needed support towards mental health, will it prevent the mass shootings and violence we are seeing across our country right now? The answer is No. These are two very separate and sometimes confusing issues.
THE TRUTH: MOST PEOPLE WITH SERIOUS MENTAL ILLNESS ARE NOT VIOLENT
Most people with mental illness are never violent towards others. They do, however, have an increased risk of suicide. In fact, If you are reading this, you might have a mental health diagnosis, yet, more than likely, you will not be violent towards another human being. Studies also show that most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness (Swanson et al., 2015).
Another reason it is easy to blur this issue for many people is because more than half of US firearm-related fatalities are caused by suicide. Although mental health disorders are strongly related to suicide deaths, It’s crucial to remember gun deaths and gun murders are not the same.
If you do not wish to contribute to stigmatizing mental illness, here are ways to create understanding for yourself and others:
- Understand the difference between a person with mental health issues versus a person who has violent and murderous behaviors.
- Understand how language is an essential aspect of reducing the stigma, so you can create awareness for yourself of how you might unknowingly contribute to stigmatizing mental health issues?
- Do you use words such as; Crazy, Madman, Manic, Wacko, Insane, Paranoid, Loony, etc.
- Or perhaps use phrases such as; I am so OCD, I’m ADD, I’m so addicted to…, without an official diagnosis?
- Understand where the two issues of gun violence and mental health intersect and where they do not.
- Lastly, don’t buy into common manipulation tactics.
As always, if you ever feel like you need to speak with a professional counselor, we are here for you. Please contact us to schedule an appointment.
Swanson, J. W., McGinty, E. E., Fazel, S., & Mays, V. M. (2015). Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy. Annals of epidemiology, 25(5), 366–376.
Photos via TEDxPortland