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Labels are for Problems, Not People

The stigma of a mental health diagnosis stands out in my mind when I think about why people avoid therapy.

In a lot of ways, we have made some amazing strides in this department. So many people are speaking out and owning their diagnoses, paving the way for others to do the same. For example, we have a fashion line, Wear Your Label, that seeks to “end the stigma in style.” Danielle, of Naked With Anxiety, helps others through wellness coaching and sharing her story on social media. There are many celebrities like Kristen Bell and Carrie Fisher (RIP!!!) who are also notable champions for mental health.

If you haven’t checked out Jenny Lawson or her book, Furiously Happy, then you are seriously missing out. Her writing is an honest, hilarious, and self-accepting account of living with mental illness. You will laugh until you cry!

Props to all people fighting the good fight in the name of mental health. This is amazing and I am thankful that these people have the courage to put themselves out there in this way. In being vulnerable and sharing their stories they humanize mental illness. We can’t have enough of this in my book.

Our work is also not quite done yet. Fear of being stigmatized because of a diagnosis is still a reality in our culture.

How many of us have negative ideas floating around in our heads in regards to mental illness? Perhaps you fear that you will lose your friends, your job, or your children by seeking help. Maybe this issue makes you feel like something is “wrong” with you and that by going to therapy you make it more real.

Or, perhaps you can’t get that rude, judgmental comment, made by your old roommate, out of your head. The same comment that feels like it could be said about you right now. It’s the WORST.

Barriers to mental health care are not only tangible things like finances, insurance or location. Sometimes the idea of a diagnosis and the stigma around it is an even more powerful barrier.

Let’s clarify a few things about diagnoses.

First, mental health is something you have, not who you are. We all have mental health just as we all have physical health. In regards to physical health, our language is pretty clear. For example, we may say, “I have high blood pressure” as opposed to “I am high blood pressured.”

When talking with others about our mental health we tend to do the opposite. We may say “I am anxious” rather than “I have anxiety.” What would happen if we flipped the script? There’s nothing grammatically wrong with the first statement. Yet, it can create a narrative about your identity that you may or may not intend. And, you are more than anxiety! Or any other diagnosis! We all are.

Second, diagnoses are an attempt to classify a cluster of symptoms. A way to identify and label common problems. But, humans are far more diverse than these systems can fully portray. Many people do not meet full criteria for a diagnosis. Or some people may have a little of this diagnosis and a little of that diagnosis. It is not always a straightforward situation. Or they may have a diagnosable problem for a short time and never again. There are also some people who battle a certain problem throughout their lifetime.

Either way, this diagnosis is not meant to define who you are, it’s meant to define what you are dealing with.

Third, you do not have to qualify for a diagnosis to need or benefit from therapy. This could include people who have depression but are high-functioning. Or people dealing with ongoing prejudice. Or people grieving the loss of a dear one. Yet, the fear of being diagnosed with a mental illness may keep them from getting help at all.

While a diagnosis may not actually fit the situation or be helpful, it is helpful to label the problem. This is what we are looking to do — identify and label the problem, not the person. But for some reason, this seems to totally get lost in popular culture.

What does this look like in session, you may ask?

As we have been pointing out here, labeling the problem helps us identify what we are working with and how to overcome it. It helps us choose the right journey to embark upon in therapy. The fun part is that it could be a formal diagnosis or your own creative moniker. I’ll explain.

Sometimes knowing your diagnosis is validating and can help you make sense of your life. It becomes the key to unlocking lots of blind spots about your experience. If this is the case, we would make use of that in therapy.

If a diagnosis does not feel like a good fit for you, then we would try a different, more creative approach. One idea is to draft your own diagnosis, whereby you write out all the symptoms and give it a creative label. This can be super illuminating and specific to your unique life experience.

Another idea with a bit of a twist is to anthropomorphize or personify your problem and give it a name, like Amelie. Thinking of the problem as a person, we may identify its age, gender, personality or what it likes to do for fun. We may ponder what makes it act up or get stressed out, and how to help it chill out. Does it need a job, a hobby, more sleep or something else? This approach allows us to identify it as a part of you rather than your whole identity. It also enables us to lean in with compassionate curiosity to tap into what we can do to ease the problem.

Later, when you are in a jam and Amelie takes over, you can have a little chat with her in the moment and say, “Hey girl. What’s up? I appreciate you trying to help me out, but this really isn’t the most helpful thing right now. I got this. So, is there something else that can help you relax right now while I take care of this situation? Skipping stones, perhaps?”

Labeling problems rather than people can help therapy become a lot less intimidating. You get to define who you are and you are a heck of a lot more than this particular challenge. Once we figure out how to manage or overcome this problem, then we get to help you explore who you are and craft your life. And that’s so much fun.

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Natalia Amari, lcsw

On a mission to help others overcome trauma and reclaim their personal power.

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