The belief that a person who has experienced an episode of depression, mania, suicide attempt, or nervous breakdown (psychosis) is mentally or emotionally fragile is one of the most damaging forms of stigma that exists. It is subtly conveyed by often well-meaning individuals who are loaded with either ignorance or arrogance or a little of both. Because the Fragile Stigma is difficult to pin down it is hard for the victim to resist its message and so it drags them down. The message of course is that you aren’t capable of productivity, intelligent thought, or equal (rather than one-up/one-down) social relationships because you’ve “succumbed” to a mental condition.
Plain and simple, treating a person in this way is a form of emotional abuse.
The Fragile Stigma negates the fact that these conditions come in episodes and that remission periods can be long or permanent. If they aren’t, the episodes can be managed much like any other condition with proper treatment. Diabetes, heart disease, and immune deficiency conditions come to mind.
How can you recognize the Fragile Stigma?
The first is easy. It comes in the form of gossip. To a simple question like, “Who is that person?” The response includes something like, “She/he got depressed not too long ago. Terrible time, just terrible.” That kind of introduction immediately puts a suggestion in the inquirer’s mind that this person is one that should be avoided or treated with gentility. Someone actually said this to me when I inquired about a person I had never seen before. My response was, “And your point is?”
Another display of the Fragile Stigma is when you are constantly greeted with, “How are you?” Now there are two kinds of “how are you.” The first comes with brightly animated eyes and a good-to-see-you tone of voice. The second comes with intense or sappily compassionate eyes with an are-you-OK tone of voice. The second one is the Fragile Stigma on display, especially if it is still the method of greeting six months or more after the episode.
In the 1800’s there was no such thing as Fragile Stigma. Those who experienced an episode of depression, mania, suicide attempt, or a nervous breakdown (psychosis) were expected to fully contribute to society as soon as they were well. Everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Blessed Fr. Enrico Rebuschini are other cases in point. Bl. Fr. Rebuschini got back to work after experiencing the 19th century form of clergy hospitalization, being whisked away to a private home and cared for there until well. Had these people lived today I wonder if they would have been able to accomplish the magnificent things they did.
Be careful how you view someone who has had these kinds of experiences. That person is much more than his or her period of difficulty. And if you are the one who is the target of this form of stigma, remember that your accomplishment of achieving remission and getting back to life is a feat someone on the outside knows nothing about. In reality, it is heroic.
If necessary, educate the well meaning, gently of course. Correction is hard to take sometimes. But, be sure to stick out your tongue or wave off the persistently arrogant ones. They know not what they do.
Picture is mine, Sandia Mountain foothills, 2005.