Fight Stigma, Not the Stigmatized

Back in 1945, Dr. Walter Freeman struck out across America on a mission to save the mentally ill by selling his unique prescription door-to-door: transorbital lobotomy.

Over his life, he executed some 2,900 of them. The scientific community latched onto his initial success with the procedure – which consisted of an ice pick inserted into the brain through the eye socket and stirred about – deeming it “soul saving”.

Until then, psychiatric practice had relied upon grotesque and humiliating treatments: seizure-inducing injections of insulin, ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), and hydrotherapy where the patient soaked in hot or cold water for hours. Finally, though, with Dr. Freeman raising his ice pick like a conductor’s baton, psychiatric medicine swelled with innovation and the lobotomized waltzed back to richer lives.

We have advanced, right, in all respects?

No, I contend that even though psychiatric practices, the “soul saving” regimens, have improved, stigma has actually mushroomed, stamping the mentally ill as even more soulless than before.

Stigma is a brand or a label perpetuating the idea that because of a disability — or really anything that marks you different or part of a smaller percentage bracket — you do not possess full rights to citizenship and, conversely, to life. Upon my release from my first psychiatric hospital in 1993, when arriving at a twelve step meeting to see old friends and begin the nettlesome, arduous process of trying to plug myself in again, I was met with a resounding chorus of smarminess and, at times, cruelty: ostracized through belittling humor, shunned like the plague (literally, my best friend thought he would catch my schizoaffective disorder from me if he shared my space), and finally, the most barbaric needle of all, I was stuck with the label “lost,” “spiritually bankrupt.” And when I think back on that time, I realize that I should probably have opted for Dr. Freeman’s lobotomy. It would have been less painful, and certainly less stigmatizing than just taking meds in that “advanced” era of the 1990’s.

It would seem that the better the treatment is, the deeper the stigma, suggesting a torrid undercurrent of prejudice in this country. Perhaps.

When Ivan Lopez violently collided with Ft. Hood on April 2, 2014, shooting and killing three of its own men and injuring sixteen others, I immediately turned on my computer and began writing about stigma. Though Lopez’s mental health diagnosis could, in fact, have much to do with his violent actions, I learned while teaching at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation that no scientific data supports the across-the-board conclusion that the mentally ill are inherently gun-brandishing, fire in the eye, snarling madmen bent on shedding blood. Truthfully, I have been psychotic several times, and never have I laid a hand on anybody. I have been scary at times, I admit, but think about this: isn’t the intensity of a mob of fans for their favorite movie star at a premiere kind of scary in a way? Would we reject them for their adulation by claiming them to be harbingers of chaos and destruction? The point is this: if there is any connection between mental illness and violence, it stems from the fact that the mentally ill, especially when sick and incapacitated, feel swamped by those torrid waters of prejudice (i.e. – the military stigma that to seek psychological help is “weak”), and as long as we, the mentally ill, are drowning, there will continue to be desperate outbursts.

It is time to separate issues here: mental illness is a disease, not a proclivity.

David Connor subverts things in his Maryland home by meddling with language; in the classroom at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, he instructs on how to find a serene place through language. He can be reached at: davideconnor@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.