Label the illness, not the person

Kirsty Louden-Bell
Label the illness, not the person

The statistics vary, but indicate that up to 20% of our youth will have been diagnosed with a mental health condition by the time they are 18, or at any one time around 10% may be experiencing symptoms of depressions significant enough to affect their daily life. So mental health issues in our youth are common - yet there is still a lack of understanding in the community around what this means and as a result a stigma is often attached to young people (and their families) who experience mental health concerns. One of the purposes of ‘Stand by Me’, which is very much in line with what has been a key theme for Sir John’s mental health campaign, is to reduce the stigma around mental health conditions. His previous book (“All Blacks” Don’t Cry”) looked at this in the context of adult mental health and this one (“Stand By Me”) shifts the focus to youth – with a particular emphasis on depression and anxiety and how to approach these from a caregiver perspective.

SEE ALSO: John Kirwan's 'Stand By Me' reviewed

This kind of approach is sometimes called “illness education” or psychoeducation (a somewhat unfortunate term!). It involves providing factual information to normalise experience, increase understanding and provide hope by identifying effective treatments and coping strategies. It’s something we would often do naturally if our child developed a physical illness of any kind – seek information about what was going on for them, how it could best be treated and how we could support them get well. But we aren’t so good at doing this with psychological health. It’s an essential aspect of reducing stigma, which encourages young people and families to access help and support earlier and through this decreases the negative impact of depression or anxiety on individuals’ and families’ lives.

There are a growing number of fantastic initiatives coming out of Ministry of Health, Mental Health Foundation and NGOs aimed at increasing understanding of mental health issues, and reducing the stigma associated with them (see links below). The challenge is getting this information to people - getting people to check out the mental health website or watch the video clip about it. Sometimes our stigma stops us even doing that – ‘what say someone sees me looking at this – will they think…?’ We need to challenge this. We need to become more comfortable talking about and acknowledging mental health issues as part of our everyday experience rather than something that marks an individual or family as different or not right in some way. We need to be open about the need to work at our psychological wellbeing just as we do for our physical wellbeing.

Just like the many stigmas that have been addressed over time – it starts with naming and understanding it. There can be pros and cons of ‘naming’ or giving it a diagnosis or a ‘label’. On the negative side there is a risk that this ‘label’ can be applied to the person rather than the illness, that the person will be put in a box by others with that label defining them and what they can or can’t do. There is a risk that the label will carry with it prejudices and lack of understanding such as ‘being too weak’, ‘not trying hard enough’, or being a ‘nutter’. 

This negative labelling isn’t always from external sources either, young people (and families) can feel themselves like they have failed or not done something right, that they just need to ‘get over it’. They can feel defined by the illness label. This self-stigma or self-blame that the young person or the parents place on themselves can then in turn worsen the depression or anxiety and impact on likelihood of seeking help.

When the naming or the labelling is applied to the illness however rather than the individual it can be immensely freeing. It can bring access to information and with that understanding and with that a bit more acceptance and hope, and thus encourage help seeking and support at a very challenging time. There can be considerable relief for a young person and a family in finding out that the challenging things they have been experiencing are an actual ‘thing’ that lots of people have and that there are strategies and treatments for it. I’ll say it again - the label is for the illness, not the person. It’s a small but vital distinction. By naming it, by separating it out, by understanding it better, the young person and the family can work together to manage it, decrease its impact on their life and to get well again. The depression or anxiety becomes part of their story rather than the whole story. It doesn’t define them.

In psychology its acknowledged that illness education can be so powerful in written form that it is sometimes referred to as a treatment in itself – bibliotherapy. Similarly hearing other ‘everyday’ people tell the stories of their mental health journeys is repeatedly highlighted as being an important part of recovery for people.

By accurately naming mental health challenges, for example as depression or anxiety, and understanding these better we can make a big difference. So here’s my challenge - lets learn more about these things, let’s talk about them with our kids and each other, let’s be gentle on ourselves and each other if we are in the midst of them. The change will start at home, the change will start with us.

Great links for increasing understanding around mental health and facilitating conversations about it….

kl head shotSmall2

Kirsty Louden-Bell is a registered clinical psychologist and has worked in a range of mental health settings in the public sector as well as private practise.

She has experience in training and presently both nationally and internationally. 

She has a passion for youth and youth work, and has worked with Sir John Kirwan on both of his books, All Blacks Don’t Cry and Stand By Me.

, , , , ,