How Mental Illness Labels Help

I wrote this piece for Everyday Feminism. Please note that it’s based on my own experience and I include a section about how it doesn’t apply to everyone, so please read all the way through before commenting.

When I was first diagnosed with depression as a nineteen-year-old college freshman, I felt an emotion you might not associate with getting diagnosed with a mental illness: relief.

I was relieved that it was actually a real illness and not just a personal fault. I was relieved that there was treatment available for something I thought was just my burden to carry for life. I was relieved to have the language for the background noise of hopelessness, sadness, and pessimism that I had experienced for as long as I could remember.

Not everyone agreed.

Concerned loved ones questioned my decision to accept the diagnosis and use it as a personal identifier when relevant. They worried that thinking of myself as a person who has depression would prevent me from taking responsibility for recovery, or that telling others about it would cause them to judge me and abandon me.

Many people wondered why I needed to concern myself with labels at all. Couldn’t I just go to therapy, take my medication, and leave the technical words out of it?

Actually, I don’t think I could.

Identifying with the label “depression” has helped me in a number of ways, both with recovery and with coping with the symptoms that I still have.

Here’s how.

1. Finding Helpful Information About Mental Illness

The most basic way that mental illness labels have helped me is that they’re a great way to find information about mental illness.

Sounds obvious, right?

But many people who disparage labels don’t realize that you’ll probably find a lot more useful stuff if you Google “how to cope with depression” than “how to stop feeling sad” or “what to do when you feel numb.”

When I was first learning about mental health – both in general and mine specifically – I looked up a lot of things online and read a lot of books.

My searches led me to life-changing perspectives like Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, which helped me understand different ways in which depression can manifest itself, and Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, which helped me feel much less ashamed about needing to take medication.

These books have “depression” and “antidepressants” in their subtitles, and I wouldn’t have found them without knowing what to look for.

Many people first realize they might have a mental illness by looking at simple, nonjudgmental websites like WebMD, Mayo Clinic, or even Wikipedia.

Unlike some of the people in our lives, these websites won’t tell you that “it’s all in your head” or “other people have it worse.” They present scientific information in a way that’s easy to understand and relate to.

But in order to end up on one of these pages, you generally need to have a diagnosis in mind.

Even if you’ve already been diagnosed and started treatment, knowing your diagnosis can help you find information that’ll help your treatment.

For instance, if you’re looking up information about borderline personality disorder, you might learn that dialectical behavior therapy is one of the best treatments for it. This can help you find therapists who specialize in DBT, join groups that use it, and learn some techniques on your own.

Read the rest here.

Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

Last month I wrote:

Sexual identity labels are maps, not territory. Anybody who claims that maps are useless has clearly never gone adventuring, and neither has anyone who claims that maps are a perfectly accurate representation of the territory.

This resonated with many of my friends (especially the adventuring sort), so I wanted to expand on this concept.

The map-territory distinction has a long history in fields like art, philosophy, and, presumably, geography. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about all of that history, but the basic idea is that there is a reality, and there are our representations of that reality, and it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

There are two broad “camps” when it comes to the issue of sexual identity labels, which includes any of the LGBTQ+ identities as well as labels like dominant, submissive, demisexual, and basically any other word people use to say, “This is who I am/what I’m into.”

One camp says that labels are unnecessary. They cannot describe the full variety of human sexual experience, they prevent people from being open to experiences and feelings they might otherwise be open to, and they cause others to make unwarranted assumptions based on others’ labels. This camp might acknowledge that labels were politically necessary at one point to gain visibility and basic rights, but now we’ve reached a point where–even though homophobia still exists and must be fought–they are not necessary for that fight. You can find sex, love, or whatever else you’re looking for without them. Some members of this camp additionally claim that people using labels–especially if they are inventing new ones–are “special snowflakes” who just “want attention” for something that ought to be personal and private.

The other camp says that labels are important and that they are natural categories. That is, people are naturally and necessarily either gay/lesbian, straight, bi, or maybe even ace. While some people may choose not to use a label, that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately fit into one of these categories. Labels are important for politics, research, and social interaction. After all, how are you going to find people like you if you don’t identify what “like you” even means? People who claim they can’t choose one of the available labels are probably confused and haven’t progressed all the way through the stages of sexual identity development.

Both of these camps would be right in some way if the people in them stuck to making observations about themselves rather than about others. Some people don’t like to use labels. Other people like to use labels. Neither is wrong, because both are making choices for themselves in order to create the lives that they want for themselves.

As I wrote, people who claim that maps are universally useless probably don’t do a lot of traveling. Maybe all your loved ones are living with you or just down the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave town and cross rivers and mountains to find them. Others do. For us, labels can be a way of finding others or helping them get to us. Sure, I’m not going to be attracted to everyone that my sexual labels say I have the potential to be attracted to, but I’ll at least be looking in approximately the right place. This way, if I’m looking for trees, I can make sure to at least end up in a forest and not in a desert, or in the middle of the ocean.

On the other hand, maps are also imperfect. That’s not (just) because we need better maps; that’s because they cannot be perfect. The landscape changes. People make mistakes. The mapmaker can’t predict what information will be important for a particular person to know, so they might leave out important things or include extraneous information that clutters up the space and makes it harder to find your way. The researchers who theorize in their offices and then design studies that confirm what they already believe–for instance, by only accepting participants who are able to label themselves “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or (maybe, in some studies) “bisexual”–aren’t out there surveying the land. Of course your map looks perfect when all it does is hang on your wall as decoration.

There’s another challenge, too. Depending on your philosophy, most people do believe that maps depict something that has an objective truth to it: either the river bends here, or it doesn’t. Either the elevation at these coordinates is 100 feet above sea level, or it is not. But when it comes to sexuality, there may not be an objective reality to discover. I’ve just finished reading Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent book, Sexual Fluidity, in which she surveys a variety of ways in which female sexuality may be more complex and undefinable than anyone (who hasn’t personally experienced it) would’ve imagined, so at the moment I’m inclined to believe that an individual’s sexual territory may not be knowable even to them. That’s another reason our sexual identity “maps” will never be perfect.

Nevertheless, having maps is easier than not having maps. But poorly drawn, inaccurate maps can cause a lot of trouble. How many people–women and nonbinary people especially–have I seen worrying that there’s something wrong with them because they’re standing at a crossroads holding up their map and it just doesn’t look anything like what’s in front of them? They think they must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, but what’s actually happened is that someone drew a map lazily and sloppily. “Am I bisexual?” they ask. “Was I actually gay all along?” “Can I be a lesbian if I sometimes have sex with men for fun?” “Am I ace enough to call myself ace?” “I’ve only ever dated men but I like other genders, too, so why do they keep telling me I’m straight?

Sexual labels are maps, not territory. If they don’t seem to be working well, they probably need some updating. For some people, that might be enough to throw out the map altogether and just go wandering. Others want more guidance, more concreteness. Either approach is okay.


If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Not All Beliefs Deserve Respect

“I’m not trying to be ‘that douche’ but it kind of pisses me off that people here accept other’s beliefs only if they’re liberal. What if I tried to post advertising all over about why ‘I’m not an ally’ or why I think abortion is about the most disgusting crime someone can commit? I hate that I feel like I have to hide who I am, because I know I will be judged. Probably won’t even get this posted for that reason exactly.”

This is from a Facebook page at my partner’s school where people anonymously submit confessions. In the comments, people trip over themselves to assure the OP that they respect conservative beliefs and that it’s “ironic” how closed-minded some liberals are towards conservatism.

It’s definitely not the first time I’ve come across this sort of sentiment. Many people of all political orientations seem to think that being a liberal means “respecting” and “accepting” everyone regardless of their beliefs or actions. I can see how they might get that impression, given that liberals sometimes try to frame themselves as more caring and accepting than conservatives (hence the “bleeding-heart liberal” stereotype).

However, liberalism actually has nothing to do with accepting anyone’s beliefs. Traditionally, it meant valuing ideals such as liberty and equality, replacing monarchy and feudalism with democracy and private property, and so on. (Note: this is intentionally simplistic.)

Nowadays liberalism admittedly has a broader meaning. At least in the United States, liberals tend to see a role for the federal government in ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and that vulnerable people receive assistance, and they tend to be associated with the Democratic Party.

When it comes to the opinions and beliefs of others, American liberals (like most Americans) tend to believe that everyone should have the right to express their opinions. The government may not infringe on that right, and while others are not required to listen to your opinions or allow you into their private spaces in order to express them, most people would agree that a healthy society encourages the expression of all sorts of differing views.

But none of that means that I, an individual, am required by virtue of my political orientation to respect and accept everything you think and believe.

Now, it’s important to draw a distinction between respecting/accepting people and respecting/accepting opinions. Political orientations, like all labels, take on a lot of value for us, and sometimes when someone rejects your labels it feels like they’re rejecting you. But that’s not necessarily the case. I reject conservatism but I do not reject my conservative friends and family; I reject all religion but I do not reject my religious friends and family. The reason I am able to keep up relationships with these people despite our vast disagreements is because I am able to see them as more than just their labels, and they are able to see that my rejection of their beliefs and opinions does not constitute rejection of them as people.

At this point a hypothetical conservative might ask why “rejecting” homosexuality doesn’t work the same way. Here’s why. I don’t reject conservatism and religion because I find them icky and weird; I reject them because I think they’re harmful to society. Politics and religion affect us all, so it’s reasonable that we might have opinions about the political and religious beliefs of others.

But someone else’s homosexuality does not affect you in any way. If you find yourself having strong opinions about what someone does in their bedroom with consenting adults, that’s a problem with you, not with those people and their behavior. If anyone ever managed to present a strong argument based on evidence and reality for why homosexuality is harmful, I’d reconsider that position, but I’ve yet to see one. In contrast, there are strong arguments based on evidence for why conservatism and religion are harmful. You might still disagree that they’re harmful and find contradictory evidence showing that they’re helpful, but you can’t deny that good arguments against them exist.

I can divide opinions into three general categories: the ones I agree with, the ones I disagree with but can still accept as valid, and the ones I disagree with and cannot accept whatsoever. The latter category includes opinions such as these: same-sex couples should not have the right to marry. Racism is no longer a thing. Women who dress revealingly or drink alcohol are “asking” to get raped. There is no climate change currently occurring. Homeopathy works. Abortion is murder. People with mental illness should just snap out of it. I refuse to “respect” or “accept” these opinions because they are either barely-concealed attempts to impose religious ideology onto a supposedly secular society, and/or because they are contradicted by all of the available evidence.

That middle category, though, are opinions that I definitely disagree with, but I can sort of understand where they come from and appreciate the thought process that led to them. For example: the government should not mandate insurance coverage. People shouldn’t eat animals or animal products. Government intervention is inherently problematic. That soda ban in NYC was a good idea. We should ditch the Constitution. We should ban third-trimester abortions. Libertarianism and socialism tend to fit into this category for me, except when taken to extremes.

The reason I mention this is just to illustrate that disagreeing with an opinion doesn’t necessarily mean finding it ridiculous and dangerous. It’s entirely possible that someone would look at different evidence, or look at the same evidence in a different way, and come to conclusions that I disagree with but can accept and even respect. But you can’t just throw out any opinion, no matter how ridiculous, and demand that it be taken seriously and respected, not even by liberals who you think are supposed to be “open-minded” and “accepting.”

To bring it back to the anonymous comment that spurred this post, I cannot respect someone who wants to proudly state that they’re not an ally to LGBTQ people. (You don’t have to be an ally, sure, but that’s nothing to shout from the rooftops, you know?) And as for abortion, if you really think that’s “the most disgusting crime someone can commit,” you need to check your priorities. What about sexual assault? What about child abuse? Sorry, I do not “respect” those two opinions. I refuse to.

It’s worth noting, too, that it’s much easier to “respect” dissenting opinions when they do not have an immense detrimental effect on you personally. As I wrote in my post about ending friendships over political differences, sometimes what someone considers “just an opinion” hits too close to home. A straight person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that marriage should be between a man and a woman only, but a queer person may not be able to respect that. A neurotypical person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that mental illness is a sign of weakness, but a non-neurotypical person may not.

With this issue, as so many others, the difference often comes down to privilege.

I have complete sympathy for anyone who is bullied, harassed, or made to feel subhuman because of their political beliefs, even if I disagree with them. (Not only do I think that treating people this way is morally wrong, but it’s also a terrible way to get them to change their minds.) It’s difficult to be a minority of any sort, including political. I know because I’ve been that awkward conservative kid at a liberal school, wondering if everyone’s going to judge me the second I open my mouth about politics.

I have sympathy for those who feel that way, but I do not have sympathy for those who expect others to “respect” and “accept” their beliefs no matter how ill-considered, dangerous, hurtful, and unrelated to actual reality they may be.