Beyond the Label of Mental Illness

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Too often, the phrase mental illness conjures up the most stereotyped caricatures. The realities are much different. One in five adults will experience a mental illness each year. One in 25 adults will experience a serious mental illness each year. Knowing this, how do we embrace the labels of mental illness in ways that are inclusive and empowering instead of isolating and disenfranchising?

My kids and I enjoy going thrift shopping together. It’s either a good deal or a good laugh and as a mom of preteens to young adults, I take both of those whenever I can get them! Last week as we were digging for treasure, I came across a shirt with this brand label sewn in the collar: ANXIETY. I laughed and thought, “well, if that isn’t the truth.” How many people feel like their particular struggle–be it anxiety, depression, addiction, or any of the mental health challenges we might face over the course of a lifetime–is inescapably sewn into the fabric of who they are? It is the label we walk around with, fearing that our tag will pop out of the collar for all to see. So we work to keep it tucked in and buttoned up, scratchy as it may be against our necks.

Labels can be harmful, no doubt. People can see the label and then see nothing more. The label speaks to what we think we know, not necessarily what is actually true. We place our own preconceived judgments on what that label means in terms of its worthiness, quality, and dependability. The full truth resides beyond the label. For me to decide if I wanted that ANXIETY brand shirt hanging on the rack, I needed to look more closely. Did I like the way it looked on me? What was the fabric and how did it feel when I wore it? I needed to pick it up, try it on, and get to know it. The same, of course, is true about the people we encounter every day and the labels they might be wearing.

Are the labels we wear, however, always a detriment? In recent years, we have learned of the power of standing up (shaky knees and all) to say “me, too.” Showing our labels for others to see has a magical quality: it dissolves shame. Shame researcher, Brene Brown, says “shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” However, it thrives and breeds in secrecy.

Does that mean that we must shout our mental health status, biggest challenge, or most tender vulnerable experiences for all to see and hear? No (whew, thank goodness). Sharing our stories and labels is a privileged and sacred space. The choice to share, how to share, and with whom rests wholly in each person’s power. Vulnerability must include healthy boundaries.

During this week of Mental Illness Awareness, find ways to challenge how you have labeled yourself or others? What needs to be changed and expanded? What needs to be honored? We are all more than the label we wear.

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