Stand Up to Stigma

MENTAL ILLNESS: THE IGNORANCE IS RAMPANT

Stigma against persons with mental illness are manifested in negative attitudes, stereotypes, and discriminating behavior towards those who suffer. Stigma occurs due to a lack understanding of mental illness themselves. For instance, mental illness is often perceived as something the sufferer has agency over;

“Everyone has total control over all areas of their brain”
“I can control this part of myself, so why can’t they?”

These statements are grounded in an assumption that everyone encompasses the same neurobiological make up; one that is alike their own. In reality, neurobiological deviance exists, and research has established that mental illnesses have can have many complex causal factors which can be genetic, developmental, and environmental– many of which are not within a person’s control.

Furthermore, specific mental illnesses can carry with them certain stereotypes that are once again, due to a lack of understanding. Some of these stereotypes include:

“Mentally ill patients are unintelligent and incompetent.”
“Depressed people are lazy and ungrateful.”
“Alcoholics do it to themselves. They can never recover.”
“Bipolar patients are bad people.”
“Borderlines are dangerous and need to be locked up.”
“PTSD patients are weak and need to get over it.”
“Anorexics are narcissists that just need to eat something.”

Note here that language of these statements define a person by their illness, when in actuality they are HUMANS, just like everyone else (!!!), that have a bit of a deviation in their brain biology. This is precisely the point of the problem– a whole, complex person who happens to have a mental illness is deduced into negative labels and stereotypes that are many of the time, untrue. This discriminatory social environment then in turn, leads to bigger problems in terms of treatment.

PUTTING AN END TO THE SILENT SUFFERING

Stigma compounds the suffering of persons with mental illness. Tiresome efforts to suppress and hide the illness, feelings of guilt, and social exclusion all impede efforts to recover. Stigma can also breed internalized oppression by which a person starts to believe the stereotypes they are subjected to, e.g. dangerous, incompetent, lazy, and worthless. Alongside, stigma may prevent a person from landing a job, maintaining a job, or receiving accessibility aids and social support; poverty is a whole new traumatic experience. Lastly, it steers them away from accessing essential public resources to recover, cope, and manage their illness due to shame.

So how can we help decrease mental health stigma in our society?

  1. KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING. Let others know that they can speak openly about their mental illness. Within your comfort, express your own experience with mental illness if any; this naturally gives permission for others to do the same.
  2. SHOW RESPECT AND HUMANIZATION FOR PERSONS LIVING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS. See the person as a whole, complex person, just like everyone else. Doctors: I am talking to you too.
  3. IF NEEDED, ENCOURAGE THOSE WHO DISCLOSE THEIR MENTAL ILLNESS TO YOU TO ACCESS PUBLIC HEALTH RESOURCES such as psychiatric care, counselling, and support groups. Respect their level of confidentiality and let them know that they are not alone.
  4. EDUCATE YOURSELF. Unfortunately, those living with mental illness don’t always have the energy to educate everyone they talk to. Do some reading and challenge the stereotypes.
  5. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR SPEECH. Avoid stigmatized words such as “retarded,” “lunatic,” and “psycho.”
  6. NEVER SHAME A PERSON FOR TAKING PSYCHOACTIVE MEDICATIONS. Just because some individuals may not need it, it could be another individual’s life line.

Working together to stand up to stigma can create an environment where we can all heal a little more gracefully. This is imperative as a mental illness crisis continues to plague our world.

References:

Corrigan, P. W., Watson, A. C., & Barr, L. (2006). The self–stigma of mental illness: Implications for self–esteem and self–efficacy. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(8), 875-884.

Rüsch, N., Angermeyer, M. C., & Corrigan, P. W. (2005). Mental illness stigma: concepts, consequences, and initiatives to reduce stigma. European Psychiatry, 20(8), 529-539.

Corrigan, P. W. (2005). On the stigma of mental illness: Practical strategies for research and social change. American Psychological Association.

Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614.

Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 1(1), 16-20.

Unknown. (2000). Mental illness vies for attention. The Lancet.