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The danger of labelling

5 Sept, 2022

I often receive emails from clients who have been diagnosed with some mental disorder, and wonder if mindfulness will help them cope with it or maybe even heal from it. And so, in the past ten years, I’ve learned of all kinds of mental diseases, from PTSD to ADD and everything in-between. Interestingly most people are quite happy to receive a diagnosis and a name for what ails them. As they now suffer from something acknowledged by the medical world, they feel great relief to have a ‘real’ disease. But… after that initial elation things often turn less rosy as medication (if available) often gives disappointing results, such as loss of focus and drowsiness. One of my clients was advised by his team of psychologists to contact me as they could do nothing to make him cope with his Asperger syndrome.


Set in stone
Even though I understand it’s good to know what kind of mental disorder you have, I don’t like the trend of labelling. Giving something a name sets it in stone, and eliminates the wish to look at challenging thought and behaviour patterns from a different perspective. Labelling is ego’s hobby, and this explains why it’s widely practised (and even revered) in all areas of life. More and more of our human but sometimes painful feelings and emotions are being embraced by the hardcore medical realm, and so we are being taught to view sadness, anxiety, jealousy or anger as something that’s out of the ordinary which should be treated and cured by real doctors, preferably with medication. The actual results from the current kaleidoscope of treatments are embarrassingly bleak. Many of us go through extensive treatment programmes, sometimes for months or even years on end, but still feel down, confused and desperately disillusioned.


While labelling has dangerous implications, un-labelling can be a real game-changer. I read a book by a Dutch psychiatrist who started working in a mental health clinic in the US. Most of the patients lived in the clinic for more than 25 years, and suffered from severe mental illnesses. He noticed that, because these people were labelled ‘patients’, they expected to be treated as patients – and acted as crazy patients. He observed how they would behave absolutely normally, but once confronted with a situation they didn’t like would throw a tantrum and perform the ‘craziness’ that had led to their diagnosis. When he suggested to take away the label ‘patient’ and address them as adults who simply needed to learn how to behave and perform tasks such as cleaning and gardening, they all panicked and flatly refused to cooperate. But he stood firm and, little by little, gave them all his new perspective. The former patients learned to control their emotions while the nurses learned to be strict rather than accommodating. After a year many of the inhabitants of the clinic had unlearned their crazy behaviour, found jobs and moved out of the clinic to live a life in the regular world.


Sensible principles
As a mindfulness expert I get to work with the whole spectrum of human feelings and emotions. But even the most obsessed and anxious clients I have coached have been able to unlearn their irrational thoughts thanks to the sensible mindfulness principles. I think it’s time to stop labelling: we need to stop branding people as ‘patients’ and locking them up in some official mental ‘disease’ profile. Most of our feelings are normal; we just need to learn how to deal with them.


n Marisa Garau is a mindfulness expert who has lived in Mangawhai since 2007. Find more practical tips on how to de-stress your life at her website or flick her an email if you’d like to have a personal chat: marisa@growingmindfulness.com

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