Monday, 18 June 2012

Stigma and Prejudice: Where do we Draw the Line?

It happened again. I had a conversation a number of months ago and I am still reviewing it my head. This is how my brain works; I write articles and stories in my head like some people experience a song playing over and over again. I know there is nothing to be done other than to write it down and spit it out. Hang on to your hats you might not like what I have to say.

On May 8th I was a guest of WOTCH Community Mental Health at the 2012 Breakfast of Champions here in London. This celebration recognizes individuals who have tirelessly and successfully worked in the field of Mental Health Care. Michael Landsberg of TSN was the guest speaker; he is a consumer survivor, which means he is a working individual who admits he has a mental illness. As he was presenting to the audience he used the familiar phase, “They have stigma and I need to bust through it.” The gentleman who was sitting next to me whispered a response to this statement, “I hate it when they use that term stigma. It is prejudice.” There it was, the remark that I have grappled with since.

            My first course of action was to connect with this provocative man via Twitter to see what he was really trying to say. It was as I heard, he does not see stigma as stigma but as prejudice. Fine. Next I turned to the dictionary, which was maybe where I should have started from. Stigma is a mark of disgrace, a stain or reproach on one’s reputation. Prejudice is an opinion formed without taking time and care to judge fairly. Stigma is an internal action; as is disgrace, so can only be realized through the individual who has a mental illness. Prejudice is the external label attached to an individual who has a mental illness, without time to consider first (maybe to save time or brain cells).

            I can now clearly see that we as mental health advocates are interchanging the two. I am now wondering are we trying to be polite? Do we do this because of political correctness?  I know I did it out of pure ignorance. But I can no more. I must call a spade a spade and I will no longer view prejudice as stigma.

I, as a consumer survivor can still harbor stigma about me, but if I turn my way of thinking onto another mental health consumer, I am prejudiced. This means if I think someone who has suffered through a serious mental illness can not work as well as someone who has not, then I am prejudice. If I think that I need to decide for a mental health consumer how their recovery should look than I am prejudice. Likewise, if I think that I will never work again because I have a serious mental illness than I am dealing with stigma. And if I decide that my recovery can go no further than where it is, it is stigma that is my barrier.

            I have been enlightened; stigma is not the only barrier prejudice is the greatest. From this point on I will draw the line. I suspect that until someone realizes they are prejudice they can do nothing to change. So I invite you to take a long look at yourself. Are you prejudiced?

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