Statistics, social desirability and the perpetuation of stigma
Yesterday, I opened up to the world of Facebook and told my story of mental illness. I was astounded by the overwhelming response I received. It turns out that many people I know can relate quite readily to my story. For some reason, this shocked me. But why? According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Similar numbers are reported in other developed countries. That’s about 1 in 5 people, a statistic that I’ve heard many times before. So why should it shock me that personal friends of mine had suffered mental illness as well?
I think the answer lies in our society’s obsession with statistics. Numbers give us facts, concrete ideas about how the world works. “1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness.” That’s a neat fact to know. It sounds like it’s getting some sort of point across – look, mental illness exists! But the real issue is that it doesn’t seem to be getting any point across. In a 2008 survey conducted by the the Globe and Mail, 42% of respondents said they would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with a major mental illness. Almost half of the respondents believed that mental illness is just an excuse for “poor behavior and personal failings.”
Statistics are cold. You can’t relate to a statistic, you can’t talk to a statistic, you can’t find comfort in a statistic. Our obsession with numbers creates an almost tangible veil over society. We appear to be open and accepting, but we’re not. We think that by spreading around how common mental illness is, we’ve done our part in fighting stigma – there, the battle’s won. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Knowing how common mental illness is without being able to reach out and talk about it leaves us feeling even more alone than before.
I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone. I am grateful for every stigma campaign that exists, and I’m happy those numbers are so widely known. At least mental illness isn’t just the ever-present elephant in the room, looming in the corner, but never being mentioned. We do talk about it – just not in the right way. At fault is social desirability: our other obsession. Everyone wants to appear like they’re “doing the right thing,” but no one wants to open up and share their secrets. Sharing personal parts of yourself leaves you open for judgement and hurt. We go to great lengths to avoid these things. We share personless facts, but not personal stories.
And hey, who can blame us? Does anyone really like being naked in front of the world, no secrets to hide behind? Of course not. Many individuals suffering from a major mental illness are simply not able to speak up. It’s too hard on an already damaged psyche. Some of us can’t speak up for fear of losing work, losing friends or losing children. But without these stories, our society falls into the dark. We see the mentally ill as the homeless people on the streets, as the perpetrators of vicious crimes, and as characters in our movies. We don’t see them as our friends, our mothers, and our first-grade teachers.
This is not a rally to get everyone suffering from a mental illness to write a memoir. This is not a lecture on “doing the right thing.” (What is the right thing anyway?) All I want is to open a dialogue. Even if you don’t have a diagnosable mental illness, talk about your mental health with your friends. Stop using words like “bipolar”, “panic attacks” and “schizophrenia” if you’ve never experienced them – recognize that these are serious conditions. Talk about those times when you’ve felt depressed after being dumped or losing a grandparent. Open up about that panic attack you had that one time – but please don’t overuse the term!
Communicate. We’re social creatures, and yet sometimes communication is what we fear most. Nothing will ever change if we don’t take action. I urge you not to hide in the dark. There’s no need to open up to the world at large, but at least tell your close friends and family. Before we can understand a problem, we must first identify it.
If you want to share your story with me personally, visit my contact page and drop me a line. I will keep everything confidential – and I’m told I’m a pretty good listener.