I’ve only recently been diagnosed with mental illness, but the issue of being labelled or labelling myself has been on my mind for just as many years as I’ve been suffering from mental health problems before I sought help.
My therapist said something interesting a few weeks ago. I shouldn’t worry too much about the diagnosis. I think what he meant was that I shouldn’t worry about labels. Apparently, many of his patients find it difficult or distressing to cope with being ‘depressed’, ‘manic’, ‘neurotic’ etc. So what effects can it have on people to be officially diagnosed? Are labels really a burden? A stigma?
According to labelling theory, they are. Labelling theory holds that being labelled as abnormal or deviant in any way can lead to people perceiving of themselves and behaving in correspondence with those labels assigned to them. If you’re constantly being called a criminal, freak, or lunatic, that designation might become part of your identity. So when your psychiatrists, therapists, and counsellors tell you that you have a personality disorder (for instance) that diagnosis can become the most salient part of who you are. And I don’t mean that other people necessarily see you like that – though that does happen, of course. I’m rather concerned about one’s self-perception.
Don’t call me mad – or do, actually!
I’ve been thinking about what labels do to me a lot. About how it makes me feel to know that I’m suffering from depression and personality disorder; and how it makes me feel to know that other people also know. I’d say it triggers three different things:
Worry: Just as many other people suffering from mental health problems, I’m worried about stigmatisation. But so far that fear only concerns one area of my life: university. I recently had to email a lecturer to tell her why I hadn’t contacted her in a while and I let her know that I’m currently dealing with ‘personal problems’. I’m not sure how I’d feel about my teachers knowing about my issues.
Excuse: I’ve caught myself using the diagnosis as an excuse for my behaviour. Not to someone else, but to myself. Sometimes when I don’t want to or can’t bring myself to do certain things, my mind tells me “Well, you’re depressed, after all. People will have to understand and accept that. You’re ill, you can’t help it!” I know those thoughts aren’t helpful; they make it easy to not even try.
Relief: This is – luckily – the most dominant effect the diagnosis had on me. I was relieved! For almost I decade, I felt wrong. Something wasn’t quite right with me. I always felt as if I WAS the problem and as if it was to blame for that. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I officially HAVE problems. For me, that’s an important difference. I’m not just weird or a difficult kid any longer. Specialists have acknowledged that I suffer from a medically recognised illness, which means that I’m not alone. Other people have similar issues and I can get help.
So, all in all, the labels ‘depression’ and ‘personality disorder’ have helped me a little to accept who I am and what I’m like. I don’t feel as lonely, lost, and guilty any more. Of course, external reactions to those labels might still be negative, but my self-perception has somewhat changed for the better, I’d say.