Faking It: Is This The Real Stigma of Psychiatric Disability?

Boy crossing fingers behind his back in front of dad.

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It is commonly believed that psychiatric disabilities carry a stigma. And I’m not sure about anybody else at this point, but I know that at least I have always assumed that this stigma had something to do with being weak — essentially a weakness of character, or virtue — something about being unreliable, undisciplined, infantile, etc.

But following certain uncomfortable encounters I’ve had in recent months, it has become increasingly apparent to me that this mental illness stigma may actually be a lot more specific than that. I have come to strongly suspect that this stigma may be really and reallyย mostly about malingering — the unscrupulous practice of faking or exaggerating an impairment of some sort, in order to exploit the sympathy, compassion, guilt, etc. of others for selfish gain.

To be clear, at this point for me this is really just a strong suspicion — more opinion than fact, or maybe a conjecture, or hypothesis — that I seem to find much more plausible than its competitors. I think it’s critical we not forget that — primarily because I also believe that one of the most damaging mistakes a person can make is to confuse an hypothesis for established fact, a merely plausible idea for one that is actually true. And also because I strongly suspect that this very mistake is what’s actually causing the stigma in the first place! I think it would be tragically ironic to try to solve the problem of the stigma that burdens those with psychiatric disabilities with the very sort of foolishness that may be causing it.

So, again, I currently believe (until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind about it) that this mental health stigma may be really and mostly about malingering.

What about you?

7 Comments

  1. “malingering โ€” the unscrupulous practice of faking or exaggerating an impairment of some sort, in order to exploit the sympathy, compassion, guilt, etc. of others for selfish gain”

    I’ve been accused of this, too, mostly but not entirely concerning my physical disability (I have chronic pain which was diagnosed as fibromyalgia when I was in my twenties), but it doesn’t make sense to me when someone says, “You’re just faking it to get attention,” because I generally want to AVOID attention.

    What I get sometimes concerning me being autistic is, “You can’t be autistic — you can talk!” or some variation on that: I can talk, I can make eye contact, I can (and frequently do) use sarcasm and metaphor, I have a wide range of interests… Since I don’t fit the (incorrect) stereotype, “of course” I’m lying about it. Except the same people who say I’m lying often behave as if they believe me and are worried that autism is catching.

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    1. Thank you, Thomas. I appreciate that glimpse into your world. I’ve known someone who struggled for decades with fibromyalgia, and much of that was an exhausting sub-struggle against what we should probably refer to as the malingerphobia of medical insurers [although I’m just winging it on the etymology there, so feel free to correct me ๐Ÿ™‚ ]

      And I’m very happy to meet another autist who doesn’t fit the stereotype. Like you, I can also talk, make eye contact, use sarcasm and metaphor and have a wide range of interests; although I tend to zero in on and really throw myself into just one or two of my interests at a stretch, which can mean anything from weeks to years, depending on the interest. Also, even though I can do eye contact, for me that’s a bit like saying that I can write with my left hand, which also demands a certain effort and feels awkward. I have no idea when I discovered the compromise of looking at my interlocutor’s mouth, but I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. It seems to yield most of the benefits of eye contact with much less effort and weirdness. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. I can’t help thinking that part of the stigma is people’s sense that mental illness might be socially contagious. Not wanting to be seen in the company of someone who has a psychiatric condition. (That doesn’t explain the stigma, but more or less a side effect of the stigma.)
    just wondering.

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