Anti-stigma campaigns that restigmatise…

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When it comes to campaigns against stigma in ‘mental health’ that actually restigmatise their objects, Stephen Fry is not the only offender, or even the worst. He is one of the most famous, however, and has spoken openly of his own experiences. Nonetheless, the above comment, seemingly part of an anti-stigma campaign is, (with the exception of the words on friendship), utterly incorrect and a counsel of despair.

Depression, like all emotions, is defined principally by its subjective component. The psychiatric classifications make this a sine qua non condition of diagnosing the disorder.  Yet Fry, like so many anti-stigma campaigners, wishes us to believe that our own subjectivity is alienated, has nothing to do with us, is much like the weather. Not only is this false – there are vast numbers of reasons why people become depressed, and many ways in which they perpetuate their condition – it also makes those with depression the passive victims of their condition.

Fry is not the only one to peddle these kinds of fantasies in the interest of fighting stigma. Unfortunately, these sorts of campaigns tend to promote two key falsehoods: firstly, a reductionist (usually biological) distortion of a subjective condition, and secondly, the foreclosure of any ethical implication on the part of sufferers. We are led, absurdly, to a subjectless disorder of subjectivity, and one for which nobody has any responsibility. Individuals are constructed as the passive victims of problems beyond their control, a conception which is implicitly belittling. The logical corollaries of this are, of course, defeatism, drugs, and techniques of distraction.

This is a great shame, as there may be some benefit in supporting those with various difficulties in life in getting help. Nonetheless, they will be implicated in those very difficulties, and far from being stigmatising, this is a very good thing, as it means that even the most wretched of melancholies may yet have a way out. An attitude of bad faith to one’s own subjectivity – pretending that it is ‘like the weather’ – can only intensify alienation, and hinder the movement of one’s subjectivity to a better place.

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4 thoughts on “Anti-stigma campaigns that restigmatise…

  1. Yes, yes, yes!
    OMG there is so much I want to write in this comment … will limit myself to dot points.
    * The DSM-IV-tr has a lot to answer for: e.g. I find their criteria for a ‘major depressive episode’ to be laughable, as a sufferer can either be suffering insomnia OR hypersomnia, weight gain or loss of appetite. This is, in my opinion, ridiculous and arises out of an illogical attempt to impose a disease/pathogen model of ill-health onto the world of mental health.
    * The anti-stigma campaigns allow people to hide their personal discomfort at being around a depressed person behind such statements as “you’re not alone”, “one in four”, “take plenty of long, hot showers” (!!!!) instead of simply being present with their friend who is suffering. I want to scream: “For goodness’ sake, I know I’m uncomfortable to be around – I hate it myself! Just hold my hand as I have a bit of a cry, or fetch the tissues. Politically correct platitudes make you feel as though you’re doing something, don’t cut it.”
    * And as to the concept of a “subjectless disorder of subjectivity” … ahh, I’ve probably outworn my welcome in your comments section as it is. I’ll shut up and move on.
    Great post, thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bree, and feel free to take as long as you want.
      The attempt to construct depression as a purely medical disorder has some serious drawbacks, in my opinion, not least of which is limiting the ways in which people view (and make use of) their own suffering. Tokenistic campaigns like ‘Are you ok day?’ send a distinctly ambiguous message, and the evidence I’ve seen suggests that they achieve little to change public perceptions of mental health in any case.
      Your comment about ‘long hot showers’ is amusing but sadly, all too common a piece of advice. In my training, I recall supervisors instructing me to encourage depressed and anxious patients to get themselves some nice candles, and have a bath. As you suggest, this is about the anxiety of the clinician (or the friend), who feels that they must say or do something when faced with a suffering person.

  2. Pingback: Back to anti-stigma… | Archives of a Divided Subject

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