“My therapeutic goal is to get rid of my anxiety.”
This type of client comment challenges therapists. Because how do you help meet these expectations when some symptoms, as comfortable as they might be, are simply part of being a human being?
In our society, we have a tendency to either “pathologize” our symptoms, which are frequently a normal manifestation of our environmental stressors, or to assign negative labels to people struggling with mental illness – lazy, weak or dangerous. This oftentimes leads us to having unrealistic goals when seeking help, or avoiding talking about our struggles due to feelings of shame associated with them.
At an early age we are often taught to smile when we are upset or not rock the boat if we are angry; as a result, we might repress our emotions as we experience life. Additionally, the lack of accurate information about mental illness leads to misconceptions about emotional struggles, which in turn contributes to mental health stigma. Unlike medical disorders such as cancer or diabetes, mental illness cannot be easily diagnosed with an x-ray or a blood test. Therefore, this might create skepticism about seeking treatment, and a misunderstanding of mental health disorders.
So what is a mental disorder and what causes one? It can be understood as a pattern of behavior that is associated with impairment in someone’s daily functioning. These mood and behavioral changes are often persistent and can affect all areas of someone’s life. Biological factors, unresolved traumas, medical conditions and other causes can contribute to the development of a mental disorder. These factors can cause someone to experience a series of symptoms, with the most common ones falling under the categories of anxiety, depression and substance-related disorders.
Recently, organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or Bring Change 2 Mind (BC2M) have been advocating against the stigmas associated with mental illness and providing support to those affected by mental disorders. Many celebrities, including Lady Gaga and Meat Loaf, are also openly sharing their struggles with mental illness. The hope is that the more people talk about mental illness and the more it is normalized, the less fear people will have to seek out help.
In February, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology released the Dunedin Study, which revealed that long-lasting mental health is not the norm. This research, which has followed 988 participants over the course of 35 years, starting when the individuals were 3 years old, is one of the most famous and long-term studies ever conducted. It has revealed that only 17% of the subjects have not met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder, highlighting that 83% of the subjects have experienced a mental illness for a short period of time, or endured longer lasting mental illness.
Hopefully this research will help develop a more inclusive perspective of mental disorders, acknowledging that most of us have experienced mental health struggles, and fight the stigmatizing view that psychopathology is limited to a very few people.
As we strive to normalize what should be the norm, here are a few tips to help support those who might struggle with mental health issues, and facilitate a stigma-free environment:
Encourage a person to open up. The more we talk about our struggles, the more we raise awareness and allow mental health issues to be accepted. One significant misconception about suicide is that if we ask someone if they want to kill themselves, we will encourage them to act upon their thoughts. Talking about struggles allows fear to decrease, and for people to feel supported and reach out for proper help. It decreases isolation and suffering.
Validate. You might not understand a person’s struggles, but that doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t real. Validation provides a connection, normalizes someone’s experience, and helps decrease negative emotions.
Listen. It might feel counter-intuitive to listen to someone who experiences pain without offering a solution. But oftentimes our suggestions are based on our experiences and do not always apply to a person’s world. The more you listen, the more you provide a safe space for someone to feel heard and understood.
Stop using labels and judgments. We would not call a person who has cancer or diabetes “cancer” or “diabetes.” So we need to stop calling a person who struggles with emotional regulation “bipolar or borderline.” And when someone opens up about their emotional struggles, do not judge them by saying: “oh, you’re so anxious!.” When someone is vulnerable enough to trust you with their emotional struggles, they hope you will support them. Labels only increase fear, shame and stigma.
Embrace your pathology. Psychologist Alfred Adler’s theory states that any behavior is purposeful if we understand the context. Some anxiety propels people for action. If people did not experience anxiety, they would not do well on exams. If people did not experience grief, they would not engage in community rituals to celebrate loss. Not all emotional struggles are a sign of a disorder. Embrace human emotions, as uncomfortable as they might be.
Educate yourself. Knowledge decreases stigma. Organizations like NAMI and BC2M offer a wealth of resources to help understand mental disorders, and provide tools for family and friends to support loved ones struggling with emotional illness.
Next time you think about getting rid of your anxiety, hopefully you will be reminded that most people have or are experiencing an emotional struggle, and that does not stop the world from functioning. In fact, anxiety and the symptoms that some people still consider abnormal are the new norm, and in some ways, are what actually make the world work.