Stigma will stay until mental health is no longer a disease

Jamie keating, Daniel Vincent and Steve Ward at the opening of headspace in Lismore.
Jamie keating, Daniel Vincent and Steve Ward at the opening of headspace in Lismore. Mireille Merlet-Shaw

AS Chris Tanti of headspace states (Letters, June 26), stigma for those experiencing problems in living is alive and well.

Unfortunately, all the well-intended efforts to eradicate it are futile as long as mental health services insist on retaining the disease model of mental illness.

Most people suffering from psychological problems in living are experiencing coherent reactions to trauma, usually experienced in childhood.

Mental health services which insist of viewing such people as suffering from illnesses are ignoring the reality of people’s experiences, and instead usually suggest that they are suffering from aberrant brain chemistry, which requires correction with drugs.

The medical, or disease model of mental illness is only one arbitrary way of viewing these experiences.

Despite years of confident assurances, research has failed to locate discreet genes associated with specific problems; has failed to consistently demonstrate any particular ‘chemical imbalance’; and the drug treatments that follow on have for the most part failed to achieve clinical significance of improvement.

In addition, research has consistently shown that many psychiatric drugs can be harmful (eg. antidepressants for children and young people), and that stigma follows on from viewing some people as qualitatively different from others based on constructed ‘disease’ entities.

Most people with psychological problems in living are not qualitatively different – they are reacting to adverse life events, which do differ in frequency and intensity across the population.

The psychiatric labelling system poses that the people themselves are qualitatively different – there are those who are ‘sick’, and those who are ‘well’.

Stigma is the natural consequence of such a false dichotomy.

If we really want to help those who are suffering, then we need to do away with the disease model, as well as its labels, language and often damaging practices.

There are very viable psycho-social models which can make a better sense of such suffering and suggest ways forward.

The current approach clearly isn’t working.

Dr James Alexander

Fellow Australian

Association, Lismore

Topics:  headspace mental health stigma

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