Monday, 15 April 2013

The Freedom of Labels

A Note on Depression

For the most part I am used to hearing people discuss labels as limiting devices. For instance, when discussing sexuality, labels are boxes in which we put people; this limits the kinds of behaviours that we expect from them. However, I have also heard people discuss how labels can be liberating rather than limiting. Elizabeth Esther, on her eponymous blog, frequently identifies as ENFP, and has explained how personality typing has legitimized her behaviour. When Richard Beck criticized the Myers-Briggs personality test on empirical grounds (and, incidentally, I support his criticism), he received a lot of backlash from people who found that personality typing to be hugely helpful (however, I cannot find that post again because I think the criticism was buried in comments somewhere; sorry). What's going on?

Among other things, personality types help legitimize certain cognition and behaviour. I have found that identifying as an introvert has been incredibly helpful in understanding my own emotional responses and explaining them to others. In many cases, explanation has the force of justification: what was previous seen as an overreaction, a sign of poor mental discipline, is now a facet of my personality. The labels that personality tests provide, even if empirically unreliable, can be a way of insisting on cognitive diversity. When my interlocutors assume that everyone should be like them, I can use personality labels to insist that I am not like them and do not need to be like them. (When I assume that everyone should be like me, my interlocutors can use personality labels to insists that they are not like me and so on.)

But ultimately I find that even personality labels come with limitations that outweigh their freedoms. One of the most insidious aspects of dysthymia is that those who have it often do not know they have it. Rather than knowing that they have a mood disorder, they think that they are simply melancholy individuals or that they are subject to varied but constant bad luck (see my history with dysthymia). When I had dysthymia, I believed both that I had assorted personal flaws and that I was repeatedly in unhealthy situations. It was only in discovering the term dysthymia that I was able to understand my problem not in terms of personal flaws or external forces but in terms of a specific and treatable mood disorder. Or, even if it is not treatable, to claim the term "mental illness" can be liberating in other ways. I felt the stigma of mental illness, certainly, but psychiatric (and pseudo-psychiatric) labels were helpful in understanding my behaviour and giving it an etiology outside the realms of blame and persecution (cf this post). In this way, I consider the labels of mental illness even more freeing than the labels of personality.

Of course, my experience is not generalizable. I might be in a minority. The label "mentally ill" has been used to disenfranchise people since the inception of that term (cf Foucault). I assume labels are liberatory in proportion to how much control the labeled have over them.

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