Misconceptions and misrepresentations of mental disorders
Updated: Mar 2
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To kick off our campaign, we are delving straight into mental disorders, and the misconceptions or misrepresentations of these! We’re going to focus on severe disorders; those that the concept and behaviours of seem so bizarre and out of the ordinary, sometimes the best way others try and understand these is to make very simplified and broad statements about that disorder. We’ve been busy talking to people who have experienced some of these disorders or stigmas to hear examples of how people have tried, and failed, to understand them and what misconceptions of their disorder this results in. A note in advance; this is not meant to criticise people, police or mental health workers. These are experiences people have had with people and are not representative of how everyone would act.
While trauma is not a diagnosis, it can result in pervasive and debilitating symptoms that are specific to that person and sometimes the context the trauma occurred in. One person we spoke to described the lack of understanding and palm-offs she’s faced over the years. She detailed that trauma affects you in an unconscious way, and in her case has resulted in a diagnosis of complex PTSD; . For her, every time she experiences situations that triggers her trauma-related symptoms, she feels it to the same anxiety-provoking level. Through the years, people, mental health professionals included, have failed to recognise the severity of this,
The trauma simply does not diminish for her; she relives it in every graphic detail every time it
comes above the surface; and when this comes is uncontrollable. She has been viewed by others as being weak, unwilling to change, rude for not responding to people, and obstinate. People have essentially made negative judgements and put down her character for having experienced trauma.
Personality disorders are incredibly debilitating and can result in behaviour that others see as bizarre to them. One big stigma with PD is that PD and violence go hand in hand. Almost 60% of Americans surveyed in 2006 thought that someone with schizophrenia were likely to act violently to someone else. The reality is that only 3-5% of all violent episodes are connected to serious mental health conditions such as PD. A sufferer of PD that we interviewed spoke openly of stigmas with PD. She spoke of how others see a label of PD, people see label and judge that label, not the person. People often don’t see beyond her outer behaviour, and this is something we all have to be aware of. We naturally like to understand people and why they are behaving that way; unfortunately, the behaviour is the only observable measurement we have of understanding what that person is experiencing on an emotional level. The person might be experiencing trauma, or reliving trauma.
Our interviewee continues to explain her scenario; for example, when her PD behaviours come out into the open (mostly animalistic vocal sounds that represent her distress), there is a default for people around her to treat her as dangerous. This is particularly true when in crisis and she has to have contact with police or clinicians. Police restrain her immediately. Clinicians ‘might as well be using their clipboards like a shield in battle’, she says. And then the popular approach is to offer medication. These approaches have left her in physical pain and in further distress, with no help offered. Her ‘unusual’ behaviours have resulted in remarks towards her such as ‘stop being childish’ and ‘you obviously don’t want help’. She says only a rare few people see beyond her behaviours.
To compare approaches and outcomes, one successful story she had was her interaction with a social worker in a hospital. Instead of treating her like she was dangerous, he was patient and gave her time to release her distress in whatever cathartic way (for her it was screaming). He gave her so much time, she fell asleep and woke being able to process what was around her for the first time since being in crisis. When he entered the room again, he did not use body language that showed he thought she was a threat; he came and sat next to her instead of standing over her or near the doorway where it would be an easy escape. And importantly, he treated her with kindness. Sometimes that’s all it needs to allow her the freedom to trust the person and talk openly.
The person we spoke to over her OCD started off by saying that she normally does not like to talk about it with people because they automatically think it’s about keeping your house obsessively tidy. She continues to explain that there’s a spectrum to OCD, and can be mild, moderate or severe. Importantly, symptoms are unique to each person and there are more types of OCD than people realise. For her, it was not about being tidy, it was about the voice in her head compelling her to touch objects until the voice was content to move on. It was a constant battle in her head with these voices that are so strong; they persist to such a degree to tell her what to do that in the past, it left her depressed and feeling suicidal, and unable to get out of the house for 6 months. If people ever rushed her to finish what her voices needed and pushed her to do, it would distract her and she would have to start the behaviours from the beginning, and she says only 1 person in her life has ever been respectful of this fact; not rushed her and allowed her to finish what she needed to do. Another type of OCD she experiences is that of ‘mental tracing’ which involves her uncontrollably tracing invisible lines around objects and turning them into symmetrical shapes in her mind. This is constant in her everyday life.
The phrase obsessive compulsive disorder has been really dumbed down in the significance or impact it has on someone’s life, and part of this could be down to how the media represent the disorder. A different person with OCD we spoke to described how she feels when she sees TV programmes such as Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, a campaign by a major TV company which described its service as ‘Obsessive Compulsive Viewing’. This might not mean much to the average person, but to her, OCD is a big part of her life and she felt insulted that people were not taking her condition seriously. That it was dumbed down for people to laugh at or enjoy viewing of. Thankfully, when she wrote to the TV company, they immediately understood her view, apologised and removed the campaign. But this just goes to show that without being told, sometimes the understanding just is not there.
To finish, these conditions are immeasurable in significance to others who do not have these. It is too easy to think that someone with these conditions would be able to control their behaviours and force themselves to a better place, but the fact is, these people spend most of their lives fighting in an internal conflict. If they do not receive support from around them, we are setting them up to fail, so it is useless to tell people to ‘get over it’ or even just to say ‘it’s in the past now’. These little sentences which some might easily be able to do may be all that another person has been unsuccessfully fighting for their entire life, and in an instant, we have put them down and diminished them and the significance of what they experience without showing any understanding of what they are feeling. A good place to start with supporting people is to show patience and an openness to learn; an interest in the person as a whole and not just the behaviour they are showing.