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The Truth About Mental Health Labels and Stigma

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Labels. They are a topic of much debate.

Sometimes they are seen in a positive light, other times they are viewed negatively. Sometimes they are not acknowledged at all. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about labels. It seems like a bit of a random thing to think about, but I am often a little random like that. So, why all the thoughts about labels? Let me explain.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One thing that continues to be a difficulty with mental health is the stigma of having a mental illness (perceived or otherwise). For me, I used to believe that having a mental illness meant I had a label I couldn’t shake; a label that defined me, that made me feel less. Inferior. Broken.


I still struggle with this thought. I still struggle with the labels. More often than not, I shy away from the topic altogether, because I’m ashamed. Ashamed I can’t control it, that I can’t overcome it; that it’s a part of me, no matter how I try to escape it. 

It’s a part of me…

But it’s not all of me. It doesn’t define me. It just … is.

So, what’s all the fuss about labels anyway? 

The truth is, labels are an essential part of life.

Think for a moment, what would a trip to the supermarket be like without labels? How would a doctor know how to treat you if you didn’t have a label for a particular illness? I believe the problem with labels is more in the way we perceive them than in the label itself.

What do I mean by that?

A label that states “strawberry jam” tells me the most basic information about the contents of that particular item. It tells me the general flavor, but not how it will taste specifically. It doesn’t tell me how it will smell when I open the lid, how thick or runny it will be, how many pieces of strawberry will be in it, or how it will feel when it touches my tongue. When you really think about it, it doesn’t tell me a lot at all. But it tells me enough to give me a very general idea. 

In this same way, the label “generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)” doesn’t really tell you a lot about me. It tells you I’m anxious, but not what that means to me. How do I experience anxiety? Does my heart race? Do I sweat? Feel dizzy? How does it make me feel? What are my triggers? 

The experience of GAD is unique to each person, just as each person is unique. While there are certain commonalities, these manifest and are displayed differently by each person with this particular label. 

This is true, I believe, of every condition. My daughter has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). How she experiences the world is vastly different from another person with ASD. Yet, there are commonalities in their experience. 

So, while the label tells me some basic information, it does not tell me the whole story. It doesn’t define a person, but rather make me aware that I need to find out what that label means for that person.

We are all a unique combination of our experiences, our genetics, our labels. 

The truth about labels is that they are a guide, necessary for finding our way in the world. It is up to us to ensure that we don’t form judgments based on assumptions and perceptions associated with particular labels.

It is up to us to be kind, and take the time to know a person, and interact with them based upon their unique selves, rather than a label.

It is up to us to be kind. To be brave. To be human.

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Unsplash image via Amelia Bartlett

Originally published: May 29, 2017
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