Notes and Mentions
What is Othering? By Kendra Cherry
Mental Illness and Violence - Harvard Health
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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.
Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.
Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.
Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.
Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.
Tina: Hey Serena. I know that we usually try to have podcasts that are strength-based and positive. And we do! But I wonder if today you could, in the words of our fave Brene Brown, write us a permission slip to talk about something that has been on my mind and perhaps in not such a good way?
Serena: Absolutely. Permission slip written and granted!
Tina: I’ve been thinking a lot about the stigma surrounding mental health. We’ve talked before about mental health being thought of as kind of separate and apart from our physical health.
Serena: Right. The idea of something being “all in your head”, that idea persists. Yet, we know we are whole beings...mind, body and all.
Tina: Yes. And lately, I have been exploring the concept of Othering. Othering is certainly not a new concept. Sociologists have used “other” as a verb for quite some time. And really othering used as a verb highlights the difference one might feel in comparison to others.
Serena: Mmhm. We Other things and people that we perceive as different, unfamiliar or strange. Essentially, Othering boils down to “not us”.
Tina: Right. I see it as totally referring to whether you fit into the norm of a social group or you don’t. A little like one might feel in middle school. Ugh. You are not sure whether you fit in but you certainly know when you’re in and when you’re out. And this concept certainly does not support the “we all have mental health” idea that we try to totally normalize here.
Serena: Right. The message out there in the world that we continue to hear is that people who struggle with their mental health or have a diagnosed mental illness are “those people”. Not us.
Tina: Yeah and in some ways I get it and I think, you know, I think back to tribal days where perhaps othering was about bonding with those you had things in common with and “othering” was kind of about survival, right? And in modern times, even during current pandemic times, othering can be perceived as, kind of, self-preservation. In our pandemic world that we’re living in currently, we think of those people dying and desperately want to find the thing that is “other” about those people so it can’t be us. That person over there who’s 70, that person who was a smoker, that person...you fill in the blank.
Serena: Hmm. That’s such a good point. If we focus on the things that scare us or threaten us as something belonging to “others” then we feel safer and more protected.
Tina: Yes! And when it comes to mental health, it’s a bit less straightforward. As we’ve said before, we ALL have mental health. Are we well or do we need some support? And I guess it’s a bit of the same Coronavirus phenomenon of othering. If we can talk about it as belonging to others, we don’t have to face our own mental health struggles, in ourselves and in our families.
Serena: Yet, we know what the statistics say...
Tina: Yes! 1 in 5 people struggle with a diagnosable mental health challenge during any given year.
Serena: Exactly. So 1 in 5 means that you are either affected directly or someone close to you is affected. This is all of us.
Tina: Yeah. So I come from hardy eastern-block roots and not only did we take care of our own, we didn’t talk about mental health, especially in a positive light. And if you needed some support for say your marriage or kids who might be struggling in some way, you went to the local priest. No one thought about traditional therapy. And truly, until my dad died and my child started struggling, it really wasn’t on our radar.
Serena: I think that’s true for many of us growing up. When I think about kids or individuals in my world, there were certainly people who struggled, but you’re right. We didn’t talk about it.
Tina: And just in case you’re feeling some feels around this topic and perhaps have no intention of “othering”, please know that, as is discussed in the article from verywellmind.com:
“Othering is often subtle and may involve unconscious assumptions about others.” And then it goes on to say, “This phenomenon often happens without conscious effort or even awareness. People feel bias based on what they presume is the norm. While othering is sometimes apparent, it often functions as an almost invisible barrier that keeps people who are seen as outsiders from accessing opportunity and acceptance.”
Serena: Let’s pause for just a moment and talk about the idea of implicit bias. This is a term that has been used a lot in recent years and the idea is that there are thought processes that happen without us even knowing it. It’s like an association or a connection that is a result of the things we have “taken in” over the course of our lives and that might be through media images, conversations, education, etc. We know that we all have implicit bias. For example, if I say peanut butter, you might say…
Tina: Or sandwich.
Serena: Right. Yes. And while that’s clearly a harmless association that many of us have, there are many that are harmful. It’s important to acknowledge that these exist and not be afraid to question them. The big one I’m thinking of for mental health is the association with violence.
Tina: And I have looked this up so many times including prepping for this episode. According to a Harvard University newsletter, again we’ll include that link with our notes, “Public opinion surveys suggest that many people think mental illness and violence go hand in hand. A 2006 national survey found, for example, that 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so. In fact, research suggests that this public perception does not reflect reality. Most individuals with psychiatric disorders are not violent.”
Serena: OK, so hang on. We need to back up here for a moment. Because I’m thinking about that statistic...32% of Americans surveyed thought that people with major depression were likely to act violently toward someone else. And I wonder. Perhaps people don’t understand what depression looks like? People with major depression struggle to do every day kinds of tasks like shower or even get out of bed in the morning and it’s really hard to imagine violence of any kind in this situation.
Tina: Right?! Thanks for pointing that out. It’s hard to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes period and I agree….tough to be violent when you can’t even get out of bed. And let me just repeat that last line again, “ MOST individuals with psychiatric disorders are NOT violent.” And let’s talk about the studies of human behavior, especially violence as it relates to mental health. Disclaimer: I am not a researcher but I have lived with one for 29 years. Research is complicated. Study factors that are attributed to violent behaviors like substance abuse disorders and other co-occurring (what they might call in the field dual diagnoses) is difficult because you can’t, as my research loving husband says “hold all other things constant”. There are a lot of factors. And some of those factors that might not be figured in; trauma, toxic stress and I mean, bullying for example. Hardly able to have kind of a pure case study!
Serena: Yeah, so one of the messages we want you to hear today is found in a paper published in World Psychiatry and it says, “Members of the public exaggerate both the strength of the association between mental illness and violence and their own personal risk. Finally, too little is known about the social contextual determinants of violence, but research supports the view the mentally ill are more often victims than perpetrators of violence.”
Tina: Yeah, so read that last line one more time.
Serena: Sure. “...too little is known about the social contextual determinants of violence, but research supports the view the mentally ill are more often victims than perpetrators of violence.”
Tina: Yeah. I hope we can hear that. So clearly this prevalent thought about violence contributes to the othering. There are so many perspectives on this from the point of view of people who feel othered, people who themselves struggle with their mental health. You can find articles from many of those people with those perspectives on sites like The Mighty and Medium and many others. We may have even written some of those!
Serena: We may have! And Tina, let’s talk about how we see this from our family support role perspective. In the community we talk with lots of parents who say, “Wow! What a wonderful thing you’re doing! Supporting parents who might be struggling in some way. I know someone who could really use your support!” And maybe part of that is, that is hard for us to see our own needs and ask for help.
Tina: Right. Part of it, I think, is our cultural perspective of asking for and receiving help. Somehow we think that we need to do everything by ourselves and that asking for help is a weakness of some sort. Asking for help is a strength! We want you to hear that. It means you understand your limits and can recognize when you need support. And part of the beauty of this podcast is that people can listen, anonymously, and get the support that they might need without needing to identify as in need of support.
Serena: Absolutely. So let’s shift a bit and talk about how to perhaps minimize that “othering”. And we will talk about this in context to what we as individuals can do since we always start with ourselves.
Tina: Yes we do. And again, Verywellmind.com had a great list of ways to minimize othering. So the question is, right now, what actionable step can I take to minimize othering? Since we all have that implicit bias, we all know we do it. We often get caught up in stereotyping and perhaps the antithesis of that is to focus on people as individuals. Spend some time getting to know and understand those individuals.
Serena: Right. So as mentioned earlier, we need to be aware of our own unconscious or implicit bias. There is a website that we would recommend to you and we will link it in our notes. It’s called Project Implicit which is led by Harvard researchers. Here you can learn about your implicit bias around lots of different topics such as health, race, gender, exercise, eating and of course, mental health.
Tina: People are more than their labels, right? More than the labels we might give them. In our Mental Health Mamas world we spend a lot of time making sure that folks know that people are not their diagnosis. For example, he isn’t the bipolar kid but instead maybe the boy with bipolar disorder. And in the same breath, being aware of the other language we use. While it’s ok to talk about struggles or challenges, we really avoid using words like, “that person with the problem”.
Serena: Right. Language is super important. And yes, we need to acknowledge that however people want to be referred to is the important part. And don’t be afraid to speak up. It is important that we are models for and defenders of those who are othered which might include ourselves. Remember, 1 in 5!
Tina: 1 in 5. And as Verywellmind.com finishes they say, “None of these strategies are quick fixes to the problem of othering. Since othering often stems from the brain’s natural tendency to categorize, overcoming it takes intention and effort”.
Serena: So as we bring this episode to a close, we want to leave you with the idea that social connection and support are some of the best ways to push back against Othering.
Tina: Yes. If we want our world and the people in it to be well, we each need to bolster this social connection and normalize mental health rather than othering. Be there for each other. Yes. So podcast friends, we are, as always very grateful to all of you for listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribing and sharing with others.
Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.
Tina: Thanks for listening!