The question is, how long can we stand as a (psychological) nation divided - where we pick some traits to determine people's existences, and others to disrgard as we assist them in joining the rest of us?


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, February 9, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Think Beyond the Label: Society’s Hopelessly Mixed Message

Sarah Palin attacked Rahm Emanuel for using the word "retarded" in a pejorative way. Today, we refer to people as having special needs, and don't identify them by their infirmities or deficiencies. Likewise, a new PSA asks people "to think beyond the label ." As a woman in a wheel chair roams her office, she points out the idiosyncrasies each employee has. The point, she tells the audience, is to appreciate what each person has to offer.

That is such sound advice - that it is regularly disregarded. In fact, psychology, school systems, disability programs are in the business of identifying problems in people, and making sure these are not ignored. Thus, on PT Blogs, a college counselor recently gave a primer in identifying bipolar disorder among young people (most often women).

Remember, in 12-step groups, you have to rise and to identify yourself by your disease, "I am an alcoholic (compulsive shopper, sex addict, compulsive gambler, drug addict . . . . .)." There is no room for people to say, "I consider myself a full-fledged, normal human being who has difficulties with alcohol (shopping, sex. . . )."

When a young person is labeled ADHD, bipolar, depressed . . ., that is in large part who they are. They will receive medications. Their parents will be taught about the nature of their child's disorder (what they will learn usually involves a supposed picture of their child's brain). Both parents and child will join support groups. There is no escaping this label for their child - conceivably for the rest of his or her life.

Why, in one situation (e.g., a woman in a wheel chair, a child with developmental issues) do we reject labels? Because we want people to see themselves as full-fledged human beings, one of the large variety of God's children. "Thinking beyond the label means looking at people with disabilities differently. . .[and] moving past the conventional expectations and limiting shorthand."

Last week HBO screened Temple Grandin, a movie about an autistic woman played by Claire Danes (picture). The movie beautifully captures Grandin's different way of experiencing the world - but she nonetheless became an animal husbandry expert. In some sense, her autism enables her to better appreciate animals. Through diligence and hard work, she gains a degree and begins publishing in the field.

The Atlantic's Alyssa Rosenberg notes how different this film is than others on the subject - and requires us to make an about face:

"Of all the variations of human behavior actors portray on screen, autism may be one that the movies find easiest to signal. Fill a refrigerator with identical boxes of microwaveable macaroni and cheese, have your leading man rock back and forth, repeat phrases, and occasionally bang his head against something, and audiences will get the message. Do that with any sense of nuance, and you just might get nominated for an Academy Award, like Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and Dustin Hoffman did for their portrayals of characters with autistic traits in weepies like Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, and Rain Man, the most famous pop culture document on autism."

Isn't this how we approach all such disabilities? In a film about OCD, bipolar disorder, depression, alcoholism, you can predict the scenes where people's infirmities will become impossible to ignore - life threatening - and if they violate the treatment precepts (e.g., if an alcoholic ever drinks again, a person with some disorder refuses their medication) they must go down!

The question is, how long can we stand as a (psychological) nation divided - where we pick some traits to determine people's existences, and others to disrgard as we assist them in joining the rest of us?