The Stigma of Mental Illness: Dispelling the Myths and Learning the Facts
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
PLEASE don't do this when someone is manifesting symptoms
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
More on Mental Health Topics
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.
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