Power of Labels
The human mind is a supercomputer, when it comes to labeling things. This is how we teach our kids the world (this pot is hot, that building is tall, etc.) and how we make decisions every day (it is cold outside so I should bring a jacket). These labels go even further into how we hold people in our minds. This person is nice or mean, and I think I am a good or bad person. Now these words are simple and arbitrary, but communicate incredibly complicated ideas about the way things or people behave, as well as how we should interact with them. The labeling of people is not new or necessarily bad, but it can be misleading and fail to communicate the right ideas, depending on who shares it, who hears it, and who it is about. This failure of labels is especially important when it comes to mental health labels.
To start by challenging a very common mental health label, what do we mean when we say someone is Depressed? Are we calling for them to be medicated or institutionalized, or are we saying they should go and get help, or are we telling people to just be nice to them? The reality is, outside of the context of them discussing their mental health with a professional, we don’t really know what this label means. This is not the fault of anyone’s lack of knowledge on depression, rather us admitting that unlike the physical nature of a diagnosis like cancer, mental health labels describe a very wide array of behavioural presentations that vary dramatically from person to person, and even moment to moment.
Furthermore, many mental health symptoms that are considered diagnostic and are used to assign these labels, are within the realm of normal human experience. This means that even though you may have a label, it doesn’t mean that you are feeling or behaving abnormally. Through the over-use and lack of context behind these labels, we are losing sight of the variable but normal human experience, and focusing on the “what’s wrong with me?”. This line of thinking may lead people towards feeling like they must fit into the very rigid “normal” box, rather than understanding that needing help doesn’t mean you are broken.
So after nearly 400 words deriding labels, you may be asking yourself why we have them? Well, taking us all the way back to the first paragraph, labels are deeply intertwined with us as humans and are built into the fabric of our culture, institutions, and health care system. Without the use of some labels, it becomes very difficult to communicate the needs of clients and get them access to services that they may benefit from. As much as a label can be destructive and run counter to the therapeutic process, it may be required to access additional treatment services. The concept of labeling is difficult and one that professionals often disagree on. However, if you can take something away from this, it would be that people are complex and rarely fit into a single box. Both in our personal interactions and professionally, we need to work to see the entire individual and not just view them through the lens of their label.
For more information on this topic area, I recommend the book “Saving Normal” by Allen Frances.
Celeste Rodrigues-Forbes MSW, RSW is experienced in the areas of anxiety and trauma, plus many more. For more information on Celeste and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.