The Stigma of Mental Illness: Dispelling the Myths and Learning the Facts

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The Power of Stigma and How We Can Eliminate It

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" Let's face it, calling someone names or making derogatory remarks meant to humiliate or demean their character, wounds hearts, minds, and spirits. Words have the power to heal or destroy.

The sad fact is that people who refer to people with a mental illness as "crazy," "loony." "bonkers," "wacko," and the like, are buying into and perpetuating the devastating stigma attached to mental illness. The repercussions are quite damaging.

Defining stigma

Merriam Webster defines stigma as "a mark of disgrace or shame." 1 Shame and disgrace are far from the truth. People who have an illness are not disgraceful, they are ill. STIGMA is an organization dedicated to battling the stigma of HIV/AIDS; but stigma affects many other people groups. Their definition of stigma is this:

"Stigma is a degrading and debasing attitude of the society that discredits a person or a group because of an attribute (such as an illness, deformity, color, nationality, religion etc.)." 2

Back in the day.
Back in the day. | Source

Where does the stigma come from

Stigmas are born out of stereotypes, ignorance, misconceptions, and fear. In earlier centuries, people who suffered with mental illness had no modern, medical or effective behavioral therapy or treatment. Nothing was known about mental illness. Without proper treatment, their symptoms were out of control, causing fear, resulting in bizarre, painful, humiliating "treatments" that were at times abusive and tormenting. Those who suffered were considered, as Merriam Webster states, "marks of shame" in society. Most of the time they were locked away in asylums or prisons.

Eventually, Hollywood perpetuated greatly negative, bizarre portrayals of people struggling with mental illness. Jack Nicholson and friends in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Norman Bates in Psycho, and your many garden varieties of stalkers and serial killers. There has been much progress in getting beyond those archaic views and treatments for the mentally ill, but more is still needed.

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The harmful effects of stigma

What are the harmful effects of stigma of mental illness? Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher sheds more light on the negative effects of the stigma of mental illness: "Stigma leads the (public) to avoid people with mental disorders. It reduces access to resources and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for care. Stigma results in outright discrimination and abuse. More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society." 3

People with more serious mental illnesses are often ostracized, and shunned. They are subject to discrimination in the workplace, obtaining housing and education, and sadly, receive inadequate health insurance coverage for mental health. People with a mental illness are sometimes the brunt of jokes, and harassment. Many are often touted as the family lunatic. Stigma can often affect families of a person with a mental health challenge. The stigma may cause them fear, embarrassment and shame as well, and they sometimes hold back getting care for their loved one.

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Where are we now?

Now in the 21st century, research of the human brain and behavioral disorders has made monumental strides in understanding and treating mental illness. Granted, there are years more of research to come, but as more is revealed we can be assured that there will be even more effective treatments in the future. This is good news for everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental disorder. With the new understanding of mental illness, we find more than ever that mental illness is not a mark of disgrace; is not something to be feared, and can be treated in a way that will provide quality of life.

What's being done to fight the stigma of mental illness today?

The great and wonderful fact for those diagnosed with a mental disorder and subjected to the stigma of mental illness, is that there are nation wide efforts and campaigns to dispel the myths and misconceptions about mental illnessthat have lead to the stigma. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), and Bring Change to Mind, are just a few of many national organizations who are out in the fields, so to speak, educating anyone who will listen the true facts about mental illness. As a result, there is becoming a greater understanding for the public and individuals about mental illness. It is hoped that the more the stigma of mental illness is eliminated, the more support those who suffer will get, thus contributing to a better quality of life.

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PLEASE don't do this when someone is manifesting symptoms

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Common myths and facts about mental illness

Following is a list of myths with factual responses regarding mental illness provided by SAMSHA 4:

Myth: There's no hope for people with mental illnesses.
Fact: There are more treatments, services, and community support systems than ever before, and more are in the works. People with mental illnesses can lead active, productive lives.

Myth: I can't do anything for a person with a mental illness.
Fact: You can do a lot, starting with how you act and speak. You can create an environment that builds on people's strengths and promotes understanding. For example:

  • Don't label people with words like "crazy," "wacko," or "loony" or define and identify them by their diagnosis. Instead of saying, "He's a schizophrenic," say he "has schizophrenia." This is called "people-first" language, and it's important to make a distinction between the person and the illness.
  • Learn the facts about mental illness and share them with others, especially if you hear something that isn't true.
  • Treat people with a mental illnesses with respect and dignity, just as you would anybody else.
  • Respect the rights of people with mental illnesses and don't discriminate against them when it comes to housing, employment, or education. Like other people with health challenges, people with mental health problems are protected under federal and state laws.

Myth: People with a mental illness are violent and unpredictable.
Fact: The vast majority of people with mental health conditions are no more violent than anyone else. People with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of crime. You probably know someone with a mental illness and don't even realize it.

Comedian David Granirer on dispells the myths

"Put it this way: Statistically, people with mental illness commit 5% of all crimes. That means normal people commit the other 95%." ~ David Granirer, Founder of Stand Up for Mental Health

Myth: Mental illness doesn't affect me.
Fact: Mental illness is surprisingly common; it affects almost every family in America. Mental illness does not discriminate—it can affect anyone.

Myth: Mental illness is the same as developmental or intellectual disabilities.
Fact: These are different conditions. Developmental disabilities are characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and difficulties with certain daily living skills. In contrast, people with a mental illnesses—health conditions that cause changes in a person's thinking, mood, and behavior—have varied intellectual functioning, just like the general population.

Myth: Mental illness is brought on by a weakness of character.
Fact: Mental illness is a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Social influences, like the loss of a loved one or a job, can also contribute to the development of various mental health problems.

Myth: People with a mental illness cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.
Fact: All jobs are stressful to some extent. Anybody is more productive when there's a good match between the employee's needs and the working conditions, whether or not the worker has a mental health problem. There are some with more debilitating forms of an illness who cannot work. But many do hold down jobs quite well.

Myth: People with mental health needs, even those who have recovered, tend to be second-rate workers.

Fact: Employers who have hired people with a mental illness report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. Studies by the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) show that there are no differences in productivity when people with mental illness are compared to other employees. (Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, 1999)

Myth: Once people develop a mental illness, they will never recover.
Fact: Studies show that most people with a mental illness get better, and many recover completely. Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities. For some individuals, recovery is the ability to live a fulfilling and productive life. For others, recovery implies the reduction or complete remission of symptoms. Science has shown that hope plays an integral role in an individual's recovery.

Myth: Therapy and self-help are a waste of time. Why bother when you can just take a pill?
Fact: Treatment varies depending on the individual. A lot of people work with therapists, counselors, friends, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers during the recovery process. They also use self-help strategies and community supports. Often they combine these with some of the most advanced medications available.

Myth: Children don't experience mental illness. Their actions are just products of bad parenting.
Fact: A report from the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health showed that in any given year five to nine percent of children experience serious emotional disturbances. Just like adult mental illnesses, these are clinically diagnosable health conditions that are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors.

Myth: Children misbehave or fail in school just to get attention.
Fact: Behavior problems can be symptoms of emotional, behavioral, or mental problems, rather than merely attention-seeking devices. These children can succeed in school with appropriate understanding, attention, and mental health services.

Get involved with fighting the stigma of mental illness

Be a stigma buster. If you, a family member, friend, co-worker, or some other acquaintance is currently in the throes of a mental health crisis, or is just struggling day to day to maintain a productive quality of life, instead of being afraid, offended, ashamed, or critical, seek to understand more about their illness. Find out more about how you support them. They would rather receive support and understanding than expressions of pity, be the focus of gossip, or someone to be avoided. Being a part of a support team for someone with a mental disorder can contribute greatly to a more fulfilling and productive life for the one you care about. Join the team! Fight stigma! Spread the word about the facts of mental illness, and be a part of changing lives.

© 2010 Lori Colbo. All rights reserved.

Sources

1 Merriam Webster Word Central http://www.wordcentral.com/

2 Stigma.org http://www.stigma.org/

3 surgeongeneral.gov; Surgeon General David Satcher Release of the Mental Health Report http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/about/previous/satcher/speeches/mentalhe.html

4 SAMSHA http://www.samhsa.gov

© 2010 Lori Colbo

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Comments 21 comments

RevLady profile image

RevLady 6 years ago from Lantana, Florida

It is true that it seems we would prefer to mistreat, isolate or belittle, than try to understand differences. It is not only about mental health, but physical health, racial health and so forth. Most minorities understand stigma, myths, and so forth so it would seem we would be the most compassionate and understanding about differences. Sadly, this is not the reality.

Great hub and thank you for reminding us of the destructive power of discrimination in any of its many forms.

Forever His,


schoolgirlforreal profile image

schoolgirlforreal 6 years ago from USA

This is one of or the best article I've read on Stigma. It thoroughly talks about it step by step. Thankyou for sharing. I rated up and useful and beautiful. You're on your way to greatness at hubpages!


fred allen profile image

fred allen 6 years ago from Myrtle Beach SC

You display great courage in sharing this. I applaud you. There is much we don't know about the mind. You have a distinct advantage over most who suffer through this affliction. You have the Spirit of the living God working in you to bring peace and comfort. There may be struggles, but you never face them alone. Those who would label these dear souls with negative stereotypical names are revealing more about their own character than those they seek to demean. I am glad that you are among the few who don't feel the need to wear a mask in an attempt to cover up who they are. You are precious! Voted up and awesome!


kirstenblog profile image

kirstenblog 6 years ago from London UK

First off, thank you for writing this, I hope more and more people read this. I used to suffer with depression and more that lead me to self harm so that now I have scars on my arms. I think it would be fair to say that I am recovered (as much as any of us can ever be when surviving a traumatic childhood). The stigma out there even for those who are recovered (for me it's been 10 years since I last self harmed) is a lot worse then I would have originally thought. Put it this way, people do lose jobs when its found out that they once suffered with depression (not during the time on the job either). I know from personal experience that employers can act with fear and try to villainies an employee over something like a history with self harm. The culture here seems to be to try to isolate and hide anything to do with mental health issues, and talking about it is the fastest way to get fired. Call me nuts if you wish but don't fire me cause I used to have a lot of pain!


GarnetBird profile image

GarnetBird 6 years ago from Northern California

Lovely well-researched HUB. I had to change from teaching fulltime in a chaotic, violent middle school, to sub. teaching elementary. When I made this transition I was looked down upon by some as a teacher who "couldn't cut it."Many teachers cannot handle very volatile, aggressive schools whether or not they have a history of incest. I am amazed that I could function at all with my psychological issues--there were times I was literally in danger of being physically jumped by unstable kids. I feel Incest survivors do BEST in jobs where they feel SAFE and have some measure of reasonable control. We need more boundaries than perhaps the average person. We need balance and to have access to a quiet place to rest and sleep. Hiking is my primary outlet, and it has brought me alot of joy.

Keep writing--you have a gift!!


crazybeanrider profile image

crazybeanrider 6 years ago from Washington MI

It is true there is so much stigma out there. One way to combat that is to keep writing hubs like these, and informing people that do not have a mental illness that having a brain disease is not something to be feared. Excellent hub, keep writing about mental illness, your information is greatly needed.


Nordy profile image

Nordy 6 years ago from Canada

What a fantastic hub you have written lambservant! And what an important topic. I think that people who endorse stigma against people suffering from mental illness must have an us-vs-them attitude by which they think they are immune. The World Health Organisation posits that depression is the second leading cause of disability world wide, 2nd only to coronary heart disease. That tells me that none of us are immune. Stigma stems from fear and misunderstanding. Mental illness is simply one facet of a person's life, not the entire person. None of us would define a person by his or her diabetes, so why should we do so when it comes to mental illness? Keep up the good work. I look forward to reading more and am happy to be a fan!


lambservant profile image

lambservant 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Thanks Nordy. You are absolutely right. I have heard people say a million times "Oh, he/she is a bipolar." But I rarely hear someone say, "she is a heartdisease" or "she is a kidney stone." You do hear people say "he/she is a diabetic" but not in the same context, not to define that person as a whole. I think we can all stand to look at our lives, our thinking, our attitudes and stereotypes that run around in our brains, and see where we might be doing likewise to others in some other facet of life. Thanks for stopping by.


archie murray 6 years ago

all mental illness , is caused by extreme fear in one form or another


krando1 profile image

krando1 5 years ago from Berkeley, CA

I live with both, depression and bipolar disorder and have been the target of stigma not only from 'sane' people, but also from psychiatrists; it's as if psychiatrists want healthy clients.

Plus what about mental dispositions such as kleptomania; it's listed in the DSM IV. But how awful having that disposition.


Moment in Time profile image

Moment in Time 5 years ago

Excellent Hub! There are so many myths about Mental illness. Mental Health affects your whole being!


Jan Dils LC profile image

Jan Dils LC 5 years ago from West Virgina

Great points. The stigma of mental illness does often prevent those who have some form of mental illness from seeking the appropriate treatment and compensation.

Hopefully as more people learn the facts of mental illness things will change.


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

Nicely done, lambservant. Stigma can make a bad situation worse - leading people to isolation,despair and even suicide when all that was needed was tolerance and acceptance. Rejection has been shown to effect our immune system, so stigma literally can make a person sick.


taylorslaw profile image

taylorslaw 5 years ago from Taylors

Lamb, I have to agree with you about the stigmas. It wasn't long ago that it was still taboo to even suggest someone was depressed or needed help from a therapist. Just the iddea alone conjured up visions of nut houses filled with people roaming about aimlessly and eating the paint off the walls. Mental illness was considered to mean the person was no longer trustworthy, capable, lawful, friendly, believable, or safe to be around.

I too was one of those people who thought that as that was what my elders and society taught me as a child.

Then I met a mentally ill person. He was retarted and had no idea who he was or that he was even alive. The whole neighborhood would help keep an eye on him as his aging mother would spend every waking minute watching over this grown man with the mind of a two year old. We would even play with him sometimes. Although I doubt he knew we were. But we all became protective over him. We watched out for him and even though we were only kids ourselves, we never felt afraid of him.

Then as an adult I met mentally ill people who were violent, scary, and in no way shuld be around other people. They were what the stigma was originally built on. I ran as fast as I could away from those people.

Then I met a lady who said she was bi-polar. "No you aren't" I said. I told her she was normal and acted like anyone else. She worked, she raised her children, and she did evertyhing anyone else would do in a day. She explained to me that she is "normal" because she is responsible and takes her medicine. As long as she obeys her doctors orders and takes her medicine, she can live a perfectly normal life like anyone else. I was impressed. it also changed my mind about mental illness to think that yes....some do need to be locked away because the medicine that could help them simply hasn't been invented. Or, that there are simple evil in nature and medicine can not fix that.

Now if someone says they have a mental illness I don't run for the hills. I do just as I do with any person I choose to be friends with, ...I look at the person and their qualities not their medical woes. Afterall, I wouldn't tell a person with cancer that I can't be your friend because I know that sometimes cancer patients become depressed and need encouragement to stay strong through their illness.


felixtroll2 profile image

felixtroll2 4 years ago from Manitowoc, WI

I love what you have written


megni profile image

megni 4 years ago

A great article. I like the way you've set out to erase some of the myths. I'm reading as many mental heath articles as possible and am encouraging efforts at eliminating stigma and ignorance concerning the disease.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 4 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Thanks for stopping by megni. It is always good to meet someone who is willing to join in the fight to eliminate stigma. Keep up the good work.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 3 years ago from The Caribbean

Great article! Liking it on FB and Pinning it. I especially appreciate the information on how and how not to treat the mentally ill. I am a very active stigma buster, because I realize far-reaching effect of inappropriate attitude and interaction toward the mentally ill.

Lori, you do not look like an act of disgrace, and you're not. You're a loving & lovable child of God. Thank you for sharing your talent on HP.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Ms Dora, I wish there was a way to put a big heart in the comments. They mean a lot. I am very grateful to have a fellow stigma busting advocate here on Hubpages. God bless your sweet socks of.


DebraHargrove profile image

DebraHargrove 13 months ago from North Carolina

Very nice Hub. This subject is very important and speaking out about what mental illness is all about will help to make the world a better place. Great Hub.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 13 months ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Thank you Deborah for your feeddback. I agree 100 %.

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