When I was in school more than one of my professors pointed out that there is a tendency for students to diagnose themselves as they begin to delve deeper into the world of psychological conditions. As far as I know we all did it, it’s kind of hard not to. I tend to think that everyone on this earth falls somewhere on the continuum of crazy, but it’s really only to the extent that activities of daily living and ability to work are impacted, as well as how much social and intimate relationships are effected, that people will drive themselves (or be driven) to seek treatment.
While individually we may all struggle with varying perceptions of the world, it might be an important time to take a closer look at collective perceptions. Namely, the stigma that continues to infiltrate the world of mental health. It seems like there are so many aspects that shape this sort of stigma. I think of my parents’ perception that if one were to go for psychological counseling, then he or she would likely find themselves locked away in a mental facility somewhere. After watching the film Titicut Follies (1967) when I was in art school, I was given a better understanding of where my parents’ fears may have stemmed. My sister recently confirmed this when she shared a story about visiting a mental health facility as a teenager back in the 70’s and she watched as patients were lined up and physically slapped or hit if they somehow misbehaved. Just last month CNN posted this insanely (no pun intended) disturbing article about decades of alleged abuse and neglect that took place at the Adolescent and Family Institute of Colorado. Despite multiple complaints made to the Department of Human Services, “The state never shut down AFIC. The facility closed voluntarily on July 1, 2013, after several of the civil suits were filed leading to at least one key member of the staff leaving. Many of the employees, who allegedly participated in the abuse, are licensed to continue working.” It’s no wonder that people shy away from mental illness; it is scary for the people who experience it, and it is also scary from the vantage point of the onlooker. The unknown can be terrifying. Not only is the treatment of mental health patients questionable at times, but the mere association of being related to someone with mental health issues can be stigmatizing as well. When the general understanding of mental illness remains so dim, it creates a scenario where family members may find it easier, at least initially, to deny there is a problem at all; not only to protect the patient in some ways, but to protect themselves from the stigma due to genetic implications in being related to someone with mental illness. With the prevalence of drug abuse, anxiety and depression in this country, I find it hard to believe that there is anyone out there who doesn’t have a relative who suffers from mental health issues.
In school we talked about therapy being a “soft science” in that observation and common sense often drives us more than hard facts. There is still so much about the brain and emotions that we don’t understand but the good news is that we are learning more and more. In some ways it was a relief when the 90’s rolled around and Prozac became a household name. I remember thinking how all of a sudden everyone and their mother seemed to suffer from depression, whether it was diagnosed by a psychiatrist, therapist, family doctor… or a friend who happened to have a prescription. I love that the world is more tolerant these days. It makes me want to jump on the bandwagon and create change. In fact, it’s not just good news that we are learning more, it’s really truly fascinating and exciting. The research that is being conducted on things like neuroplasticity, mindfulness, and transcendental meditation, offers hope in ways that we’ve never really understood before.
I’m happy to share this trailer for the documentary, Crazywise, a collaborative effort between photographer Phil Borges and film maker Kevin Tomlinson. The creators make “a cultural comparison on how mental illness is defined and treated” in a way that questions our society’s approach to mental health.
In the art therapy studio where I work, there’s an ad that came from Apple’s Think Different campaign posted on the wall. It’s a nice reminder that it’s time to stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Copyright 2014 © Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.
Rachel Braun, ATR-BC Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA
Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.