Musings on Mental Health Stigma,Projection,and Compassion

The stigma around mental health still has a long way to go even though it has definitely been improving. I am so thankful that the internet has been able to connect people who share similar struggles. (This extends further to all aspects of health, rare disorders, universal struggles that don’t feel universal, etc). I truly believe that it has helped people to feel less isolated and less alone. It has undoubtedly saved lives. It has also helped alleviate the stigma.

I feel like a  compassionate person. I don’t like to admit the next thing that I am going to say. I have disorders. I’d rather not come out and get specific. (I would like to return to nursing school someday or possibly go into counseling/social work). I don’t believe that any of my disorders are things that would inhibit my dreams. The next thing that I say with clearer words just might. I will qualify by adding, “technically, I have mental illness(es).”  The next admission still might be more vulnerable and embarrassing than the first. I have always felt a soft spot for people with mental/emotional illnesses (really for physical illnesses, vulnerabilities, challenges, and animals too). However, I  was intimidated (even a little scared) of interacting with people who had these kinds of illnesses. This was especially true if I didn’t understand their particular illness. I was a human being, just like them. I had my own issues, just like them. I was young and had a blend of self awareness and denial. I now realize that I was quite possibly participating in the stigma (hopefully to a lesser degree than some).

My journey in nursing school was not a positive one for the most part. The demands led to an experience of greatly reduced financial and mental health. I was afraid to participate in my mental health rotation because I realized that my own mental health wasn’t at its best. My mother helped me to re-frame this and view it as a deeper understanding, compassion, and connection.

In class, we learned many therapeutic techniques and learned about de-escalation. (I have since taught my boyfriend these techniques so that he can use them to de-escalate me). We were well prepared for the mental health rotation. This alleviated some of the apprehension.

I ended up dropping out of nursing school that semester. However, I felt great fulfillment in all of the mental health rotations. I absolutely loved my patients. There were moments of profound inspiration. (This was the one class which I was still excelling in). I was surprised that it was so easy to get on a level with patients on the mental health floor. (They were just people, just like all of us are). It wasn’t so difficult to connect or communicate with them. It actually felt great and I wondered why I had been so scared in the first place.

So, where does projection come into this picture? What can we learn about the importance of education related to mental health? Aren’t many of the skills that help all of us communicate and interact more therapeutically in relationships overlapped with the techniques that are learned when dealing with the “mentally ill”? Shouldn’t we be teaching our children (along with a foreign language) many of these things by elementary school?

I have a theory about projection. I believe that each human being has a tiny bit (in infinitely possible combinations) of every single thing that it means to be human.  I can  compare this to the individuality of snowflakes. No two are exactly the same, but they are all snowflakes. It’s really quite beautiful.

If we think about a person’s DNA, there are many tissue types that one could use to obtain genetic information. If we took epithelial cells, buccal cells, etc, the cells would be different. Yet, they contain the same genetic information. They are still a part of something larger.

We are like this also. We are all human beings. We are so different and yet there are so many things which are universal. We are also so similar to each other.

When we have parts of ourselves that we have rejected, we must somehow contain those parts and hide them from ourselves and others. (Or at least we try. They are often the very things that run us). We don’t want to look at these parts of ourselves, so we look to the external. We look at other people. We categorize. We basically create the “us” and “them” or even the “me” and “them”. A type of “othering” process occurs. The pattern occurs on a global level and on a micro level. We choose particular “others” to scapegoat and become all of the things that we don’t want to be.

I agree with Dr. Gabor Mate’s perspective that every single human being is somewhere on a continuum for every single DSM diagnosis. Each of us will be further away from diagnosable with certain diagnoses and closer to diagnosable with others. Some of us will become low enough on the spectrum that we have been “diagnosable” according to the DSM. Some of us who are diagnosed will be lower on the level of functioning scale and some of us will be higher functioning.

It is unfair and unkind to start assigning stigmas to people who fall into the diagnosed end of the continuum on one or more mental illnesses. Every last one of us are on a wellness/illness continuum for physical and mental illnesses. It is unfair to turn another human being into a one dimensional diagnosis. (This reminds of me the scene in an older movie, The Doctor. One of the residents refers to a patient in the dying process as “the terminal in room 1217”). Human beings are not labels. Each one of us are multi-dimensional.

Actually, turning people into one dimensional cutouts is a bad habit across the board. These are usually the very people we have “othered” and are quite possibly projecting onto. Another musing about projecting is the likelihood of it being another universality of what it means to be human. Everyone projects at one time or another.

I hope that we can become interested and curious enough about each other that we educate ourselves more about the various challenges that affect our loved ones and our fellow man. I hope that we can become increasingly compassionate with each other and ourselves regarding “imperfections” (aka being human). I hope that we can even have a bit of lightness and humor about everything. We are all a little crazy.


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