Breaking the Silence

Website for the American Mental Health Counselors Association's Breaking the Silence initiative to address mental health stigma.

Healthcare on Our Minds

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By contributing author Cassandra Riedy

It is hard to get through the day without hearing the buzz words “healthcare” or “health insurance” as the nation’s government tries to decide how best to keep the country healthy. The term “pre-existing condition” has been on many people’s lips as the debates unfold. For anyone who already has health concerns, this constant press and attention on the cost of treatment may make it even harder to cope with the daily worries and stress that accompany illness. If you find yourself unduly preoccupied by your or a loved one’s illness, you are not alone.

The quest for creating a diagnosis that places symptoms under a particular heading, drives much of the current Western, medical culture. There are benefits of practitioners speaking the same diagnostic language. It is also comforting to many to have a name for what they are experiencing. However, labels can have a negative impact on the overall well-being of a person. Many feel as if they are carrying a sign that invites unwanted attention, judgment and stigmatization. It can feel as though your personhood is reduced to a category: “ill,” “sick,” “diseased,” or perhaps “abnormal.” If you feel categorized or marginalized because of your health problems, you are not abnormal. You are having a normal reaction to elements of the dominant discourse of Western, medical society. A diagnosis refers to a disease, a narrow perception of abnormal biological processes. Illness encompasses the “human experience” of daily life with “symptoms and suffering.” (Kleinman, 1988) You are not your illness, and your illness is not you. Instead, you are a unique person who has a relationship with their health.

One way to reaffirm your identity beyond your illness is to to consciously author and share your story. Flesh out all of the details that make you the self that you are. You can journal, record your voice, or join an online forum. You can tell a friend or loved one. Any way you are comfortable sharing your story, share it. Take the time to highlight and empower aspects of yourself that are not dictated by your illness, but also take the time to express the details of your experience with your illness. Your illness experience is unique to you, and it casts a much wider net of influence on your life than just the biological processes at work. Acknowledge what resilience means to you and where you see your personal victories on a daily basis, no matter how small they are.

You have a story to share unique to you. In telling your story, you are doing a service to yourself and your mental well-being but also to society on the whole. You are helping society to remember and respect the humanity in illness. You have a voice, and your voice has value.

Kleinman, A. (1988). The illness narratives: Suffering, healing and the human condition. New York: Basic Books.

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