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Monday, June 14, 2010

Stigma from the Inside Out

I have been working on a project that gives young people the opportunity to learn about photography including composition and digital camera technology. The idea is that we want to give them the chance to express their thoughts and feelings about mental health. They may choose to photograph examples of stresses and tensions in their life and/or they may show the contrast to that and photograph the opposite tract. For most of us, our mental health seems to float between those two extremes. Mindfulness is the practice of witnessing this "oscillation" with 'compassionate presence'.

It is amazing to consider the stigma associated with mental health as compared to our physical health. Consider the simple example of a broken arm versus an experience of stress, anxiety or depression. I will let you explore the contrast for yourself by simply imagining someone (perhaps yourself) walking into school or work with a physical health challenge and then a mental health challenge. The stigma gets even more intense when we talk of chronic mental health issues or mental illness. Stigma involves rejection of an individual or group of individuals based on a social norm. Mindfulness practices can help us become aware of these stigmata (plural of stigma) at play within our own patterns of thinking.

You may have noticed over the course of your time on this earth that it is difficult to "change" anyone. This is why I have always been attracted to Ghandi's famed quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world". The social norms surrounding mental health and what is or is not "acceptable" or conversely is "rejectable" are rooted in the habitual thought patterns of each of us. Look closely at how you reject yourself in small moments throughout the day and week. For example, when you experience feelings of overwhelm, you may find traces of shame associated with feeling that way. Of course, I pick an example that is common in my own life. What examples do you have? When do you "reject" the way you feel or judge yourself to be weak, stupid, or simply bad based on how you are feeling or what you are thinking?

Taking these "snapshots" of your mind will allow you to begin to detach yourself from those judgmental thoughts. You may start to notice a bit more space with which you can observe these thoughts and feelings. That space represents compassion and with practice that space grows and with it your capacity to be compassionate with yourself and consequently with others. Do not expect the thoughts and feelings to go away, in fact, when we speak of mindfulness....EXPECT NOTHING!



1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great project with the young people. It's good to bring more awareness to all our internal prejudices against our own feelings, the stigma we feel against our own experiences of mental illness (i.e. the mind feeling ill at ease). I tend to really clamp down on my feelings of anger as "un-spiritual" and unacceptable. Thank you for this valuable post Steve.