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Therapy: Working against Stigma

Updated: May 1

Have you ever considered therapy, only to dismiss the idea a few seconds later? Many people have preconceived notions about what therapy is and what it means to be in therapy. The idea that therapy is shameful or signals failure is part of the stigma our society has constructed around mental health issues. Stigma is a socially constructed idea that a person is “tainted” by disgrace or shame, that they are outside the social norm, that they are marked as different in a negative way. What is considered stigma changes as society changes. For example, three or four generations ago, being born physically or mentally disabled was stigmatized. Families with disabled children, particularly upper-class families, would institutionalize disabled children–anything from Down Syndrome to Autism–because mainstream society was not accepting of differences, and there was a stigma attached to disability. Nowadays, we don’t routinely institutionalize disabled people because we recognize that incorporating disabled and neurodiverse people into society has many benefits for all of us, and the idea that disability or difference marks someone as “less” has been replaced with an attitude of acceptance and even celebration of how differences can make us stronger as a society.

At this moment, therapy is undergoing the same “re-branding” as disability did years ago. As the world becomes more complicated, as we face new challenges to our mental health (living through a pandemic!), more and more people find themselves needing support. The idea that therapy is for people who are “crazy” is, fortunately, receding, but it’s not gone altogether. Consider this: would you feel like you had failed as a person if your doctor put you on medication for high blood pressure? Probably not. What about if your doctor suggested an antidepressant? That suggestion may arouse different feelings. “Great, now I’m crazy!” you may think to yourself, or “I hope no one ever finds out I’m taking antidepressants; they would realize how weak I am.” These thoughts have a lot of shame and stigma attached to them that we don’t associate with taking medication for a physical problem like high blood pressure. When we can shift our perspective and understand that taking care of our emotional well-being should be as normal and routine as taking care of our physical well-being, we can begin to shed the burden of shame and stigma that can attach itself to therapy. As we see in mainstream media, terms like “self-care” and “setting boundaries” are working more and more into common conversations, which normalizes the practice of caring for our emotional health.

Just as the person with high blood pressure is not defined by their diagnosis, so too is the person with depression not defined by their diagnosis. Depression, anxiety, addiction, or any other mental health issues are illnesses that sometimes appear in our lives, the same way a bad cold shows up. It has no shame, and it’s no one’s fault. We can seek treatment when we can release the shame around the illness. Treatment can help us feel less alone and help us remember all the parts of ourselves that are not mental health struggles.

Finally, remember that participating in therapy is an act of courage and strength. It helps you and others who may be struggling to overcome their fear of the stigma attached to mental health and therapy.

For additional information about stigma and identity, please join Guide to Person Solution’s Sound Body & Mind group on May 17, 2023. You can attend the group by following the link:

Written by Alison Napleon, MSW Intern

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