About:The NoStigma Project is a one-man anti-stigma media campaign. Its mission is to decrease stigma associated with mental health by broadly advocating for social justice, along with nurturing empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence.
What does social justice have to do with it?Stigma researchers and anti-stigma advocates in the field have long argued that the key to making progress as a society is to conceptualize mental health stigma as a form of social injustice, not dissimilar from other forms of prejudice that lead to discrimination, such as racism or sexism (Flanagan, Ben Zeev, & Corrigan, 2012). Furthermore, many forms of social injustices do not occur in a vacuum and are often linked with one another. The Minority Stress mtheory hypothesizes that the daily injustices that a member of a minority group experiences, in the form of micro- and macro-aggressions, take a cumulative toll on the individual, sapping them of protective emotional resources and leaving them more vulnerable to developing mental illnesses (Meyer, 1995; Mirowsky & Ross, 1989; Pearlin, 1989). In sum, rather than leaving "blind spots" by artificially separating overlapping factors, I chose to focus more broadly on social justice.
What do empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence have to do with it?To feel secure is one of our most basic needs. Some of us have discovered how to "self-soothe" and achieve this state internally (most of the time) while others continue to search for it externally. One common external strategy might be to discriminate against others. In my mind, racism, sexism, or stigma are rarely about hatred. They are more often about the inability to self-soothe. They are about frightened individuals drowning in a sea of insecurity and inadequacy, flailing desperately to grab hold of something to keep themselves afloat. They eventually learn to climb atop others, pushing the heads of others beneath the surface in order to keep theirs above. Remove race or mental health stigma from the equation and the insecurity will crop up elsewhere, manifesting as sexism, homophobia, or other forms of aggression towards vulnerable targets. If we do not want to find ourselves playing a grotesque game of whack-a-mole with human insecurity, we need to teach society how to self-soothe so they can be gradually weaned off of the need for external reassurance. This is where empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence could be useful.
Back Story:While working at an acute psychiatric hospital as part of my training, I was surprised by how little treatment focused on the stigma of mental illness. I understood that treating acute symptoms and stabilization was the priority, but I was also convinced that stigma played a major role in the chain of events leading up to most hospitalizations. Denial, refusal of help, and medication non-adherence were three of the most common themes, and research has shown that stigma leads to avoidance, delays in treatment, and early discontinuation. I also knew that these individuals would eventually be discharged and return to their lives, some of whose situations would inevitably expose them to further prejudice and discrimination. I began incorporating into my individual and group therapy what I referred to at the time as "breaking stigma" and quickly discovered that this exercise had the most profound effect on people. Once they internalized that they were no different from anyone else, individuals were able to lower their guards, come to terms with their conditions, and refocus their energy on exploring ways to lead fulfilling lives in spite of them. I was so inspired by the overwhelming positive support from both patients and staff that I decided to make this a part of my personal and professional mission.
What many fail to consider, by focusing on "deficits" or "pathology," is that many illnesses are caused by undesirable imbalances in traits that are functional and desirable. The emotional sensitivity that makes us susceptible to depression or anxiety can also make us more compassionate and gentle towards others; episodes of mania can bring about bursts of unparalleled creativity and energy; and nothing better illustrates the complexity and beauty of our minds than conceptualizing psychosis as a powerful defense mechanism. In times of grief, nothing can be more comforting than the presence of a loved one, real or imagined. The dichotomy of healthy and ill is an artificial distinction. The black and white are theoretical end points of a continuum that spans an infinitude of gray. I am not suggesting that no one is healthy or ill. I am suggesting that everyone is both at all times. Each and every one of us is broken yet complete. At any given moment, we are a little depressed, a little obsessive-compulsive, a little traumatized, a little manic, and a little psychotic. No one should ever be ashamed for thinking what others cannot, for seeing or hearing what others do not, and for feeling what others will not. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once wrote:
This project is dedicated to all of the beautiful people I have worked with and those I have yet to meet.
You are not alone in this world.