Labels are great and we’d be pretty stuck without them. Years ago I went on a camping holiday and shared a caravan with a few other guys. In his incredible wisdom and bid to be hilarious, one of the party decided to remove all the labels from the tinned food. Needless to say that dinners for the week were truly potluck, and pretty awful. The thing with a tin of baked beans is that you know what you are getting; a cheap, tasty, quick solution which later results in flatulence!
So generally, labels help us to identify things which makes life just a little easier to navigate. The problem is that when it comes to people, and in particular, descriptions around our mental health, things get a whole lot more complicated.
If I say the word “schizophrenia” for example, this may well bring up a massive variety of emotional responses depending on the reader. Unlike the tin of beans which is almost entirely possible to predict, such diagnoses and experiences of them will vary massively. When we hear the term “schizophrenia” many of us will jump to the latest news headline involving someone who suffers with the condition. Others will automatically think about psychotic conditions such as hallucinations, hearing voices, delusions or paranoia. And all of the above are just a fraction of the many ways of experiencing the world which may lead to such a diagnosis. Once someone is given a label, then it is often the case that their entire persona can be open to interpretation, based squarely on an individual’s own preconceptions and attitudes around the label.
I’d like to clarify at this point that I am not anti-labels or diagnoses. They can really help us in terms of beginning to understand the kinds of ways in which people may suffer. The problem is that I can easily be led to view people in the way I view baked beans. I think I know what I’m getting, I make assumptions and foster beliefs based upon very limited information. Most of us would hate to think that we do this, but it’s actually pretty normal to do. There is a great song in the puppet musical Avenue Q called “We’re all a little bit racist,” which highlights how we all make assumptions about people based on limited information. Give it a quick Google, it’s well worth a look and is very funny.
A mental health diagnosis can only ever be a clue about some of the ways in which a person may experience life at times. It’s not a description of the person. I often wonder how it is that when talking about mental health, we often embody the diagnosis in a way we don’t do for “physical” conditions. For example, I’d say something like, “I have the flu”, I wouldn’t say “I am the flu”. But for some reason it is common to hear phrases such as “He’s bi-polar” or “She’s depressed” or “They’re a schizophrenic”. It’s less common to hear a phrase like “He suffers from depression”.
Suddenly the label becomes an identity which we can place upon others and which is all too easy to place upon ourselves with incredibly limiting consequences. That’s not what a label is for. The label is there to understand roughly how a person experiences things, and helps us to begin to find ways of improving that experience.
It’s an old cliche that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s really helpful in this case. Sure, with the beans we know exactly what we’re getting. With a book, the cover only gives us a tiny clue as to the story that lies within. The cover can never express the richness, the variety and the mystery of the story.
Let’s do more reading.