I get a lot of spam email. It dies down after the elections, but it seems I wind up on more bulk mailing lists each day.
The easy solution would be to set up a few filters to keep things from getting through in the first place. I don’t like that, though. To me, there’s too great a chance that I’d miss something significant. So, while I may not spend much time on most of the emails, I give them at least a glance.
Every now and then that approach pays off. Wednesday was one of those times. The email’s subject line referred to a story we had run, but clearly questioned the premise: “OHS students work to end mental health stigma ???”
The note was from Harold Maio, a retired mental health editor in Florida. The body of the email was only a couple lines. He asked “Should they/we not instead be working to educate those who say there is one?”
Fair question. I sent back a note saying that, while I agree there should not be a stigma against those facing mental health challenges, I didn’t think it was really disputable that there was one. Maio wrote back and made an interesting point.
“There is a vast difference between there are people who direct a stigma and there is a stigma,” he said. He compared it to people stigmatizing those from different ethnic or religious groups versus asserting that there is an inherent stigma in being part of one of those groups.
It’s a narrow difference on the surface. But it is important. An inherent stigma is irreducible. It cannot be removed. Stigma that results from the actions of others, though, can be ended.
“My suggestion to journalists confronted with that term is to ask, ‘Specifically what do you mean by that?’ and then pay close attention to the explications. Behind those six letters is a host of facts. They are far more important than the six letters,” Maio wrote.
I’ve known far too many within my circle of friends and family who have had their own struggles with mental health to take this subject lightly, to say nothing of my own.
Mental health care has come a long way in the past few decades. The progress, coupled with the progress on getting people to think differently about mental health is real. Is it enough? No. But it’s undeniably several steps up from “The Snake Pit.”
It’s remarkable to realize that, for as much progress as the medical community has made in understanding how the body works, comparatively little is known about the very processes that make us who we are. We don’t really know what the physical process of thought is. We know what regions of the brain different types of thought take place in, but now how the firing of a given set of neurons triggers the concept “red.”
Science and medicine may get there one day. But not yet. But there is one aspect of the brain’s work that we do know, and should emphasize.
Mental health isn’t a choice. It isn’t a conscious act or failure. And it doesn’t deserve to be stigmatized.