A Key Strategy Used to Accept a Mental Health Problem:
Lessons from research on resilience among transgender and gender diverse people
Previously posted on Psychologytoday.com
In my book, I explore the issue of acceptance of a mental health problem. This concept was defined not as accepting a traditional diagnosis from a psychiatrist or giving up, but rather the process of recognizing and actively dealing with the symptoms and related challenges of a mental health problem. I looked at the experience of acceptance across a number of different identities that I have featured in previous posts: men, women, and various racial-ethnic cultural groups. In this post, I feature the central finding that I came away with when interviewing transgender individuals about their experience of acceptance of a mental health problem.
But first, it is important to clarify that while I will use examples from transgender and gender diverse people in this post about mental health problems, I am not at all implying that being transgender is a mental illness. As a result of transphobia, there is a history of transgender people being labeled mentally ill in the mental health field. It is imperative to be mindful of this history in discussions of mental health among gender diverse groups. In particular, cisgender (non-transgender) psychologists like myself must stay vigilant for gender privileges and unearned advantages that can lead to blindspots.
So, what is that central finding that I came away with when interviewing transgender folks about their experience of acceptance of a mental health problem? Well, as a narrative therapist, I am always thinking of ways to help people name their mental health problems in a way that is experience-near, removing them from the dominant cultural narratives about mental health. Several of the transgender participants in my research interviews did this quite naturally. In fact, a standout feature of these interviews was the use of CREATIVE LANGUAGE in describing their experience of a mental health problem.
For example, one participant in this study used creative language to rename bipolar disorder. “[I’m] panpolar. I’m not just bi, I’m pan. I’m either manic or depressed or somewhere in between. Panpolar with severe passion… It doesn’t sound so linear. It’s more cyclical…” Their preferred terminology around mental health was also reflected in their experience of gender: “I feel the same way about gender. I don’t feel like I’m fully a man. I feel like I’m somewhere between man and trans. So that’s why I think of myself as genderqueer.” This participant showed creativity in multiple aspects of their lives that are stigmatized in society, including mental health and gender.
Another participant applied fluidity with language to their depression, preferring the term “mind disorder” as opposed to the term, “mood disorder.” They explained: “It’s bigger… A mood disorder is easier to equate with some kind of weakness… The mood thing can get a little bit played wrong, or the thing, ‘Oh everybody feels sad sometimes.’ Well, yes everybody does but not for six months at a stretch.” In addition, this participant stated that they identified their gender as a “gender chameleon” because it allowed them the freedom to make their gender as important to their daily life as they choose.
Ultimately, there is much to be learned from this creativity in thinking outside the box. Avoiding dichotomies like male and female can help to avoid rigid binaries like mentally ill and mentally well. It has been said that just as there are infinite stars in the sky, there are also countless genders. In turn, there may be myriad ways of naming one’s mental health experiences that come closer to what you experience, and reduce the stigmatizing narratives surrounding them, allowing for greater acceptance of a mental health problem.