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Removing Stigma from Mental Health

More than 55 million Americans – 25% of the population – experience a mental health disorder in any given year.

Only about one-third of these individuals receive treatment. Numerous studies show that a significant barrier to proper treatment is the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

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Rooted in Ancient Greek, “stigma” originally referred to physical marks or tattoos used for cultural reasons, religious practices, or as a way to brand slaves and criminals to differentiate them from the rest of society. Used pejoratively, to reflect degradation and shame, the word became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. As the term itself has undergone change, the concept of mental illness has also experienced an evolution throughout history.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the negative response, at the individual and societal level, toward mental illness.

 

Our knowledge of mental health disorders continues to grow, with an improved understanding of chemical and neurological factors that play a significant role. Despite these advancements, the general societal view of mental illness remains largely unfavorable. Dismissing individuals with mental illnesses as “crazy” or ignoring the problem entirely is more a norm than trying to understand the distressing conditions with which millions of Americans live.

The history of the conceptualization and treatment of mental illnesses has always been troublesome. Hundreds of years ago, people with mental conditions were viewed as victims of demonic possessions and labeled as witches. Mentally ill people were often isolated from the general population and were treated inhumanely. During the 1800s, reforms were made in an effort to regulate the treatment of suffering individuals, but sweeping maltreatment continued to exist. People were starved, chained to walls, given no access to heat or bathrooms, and beaten. Overcrowded mental institutions, shock therapy, and lobotomies were commonplace.

As science and medicine delved deeper into the neurological aspects of mental illness, psychopharmacology began to have a real affect on the population. The introduction of anti-psychotic drugs, along with advocates demanding rights for the mentally ill, contributed to the deinstitutionalization of hundreds of thousands of individuals. While the intention behind shutting down many mental institutions was rooted in benevolence, the act left thousands of suffering people homeless, without appropriate care and follow-up services.

Currently, one-third of all homeless people are estimated to have a severe mental illness, many of whom suffer with schizophrenia. National surveys on jails show that almost 10% of inmates are significantly mentally ill. 25% of these individuals are incarcerated without charges, generally waiting for a space at a psychiatric hospital.

The need for increased care and access to services is evident. Many national advocacy groups have founded in recent years to address such needs, but the demand continues to rise. Recent federal cuts to the mental health budget have, unfortunately, left tens of thousands of people without treatment. People who experience mental health disorders not only have to live with their illness and find proper access to services, but they also have to handle the stigma around their condition.

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How do we expect the mentally ill to improve if we offer them no hope? If we continue to label them, facilitate shame, guilt, and classify them as “other?”

The stigma surrounding mental illness is powerful and far-reaching. The negative perception of how an individual with a mental health disorder looks and behaves is implemented at individual, institutional, and societal levels.

Media portrayal of the mentally ill is often inaccurate, painting a picture of violence and psychosis. While some people with severe mental illness can experience psychosis and be violent, they represent a very small percentage of the population. Studies continually show that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

Millions of people are ashamed of being depressed or anxious because of mental health stigma. They feel isolated and ostracized. They are judged in the workplace and are treated differently. They believe their issues are indicative of weakness and failure. They see no hope, no reason to ask for help. As a result, stigma is a very real obstacle to mental health treatment.

How can we help reduce stigma?

Education

Understanding mental illness is crucial to demystifying the process. As part of the human condition, we often fear the unknown. The longer we allow ourselves to be uninformed on what exactly happens in the development and course of mental health disorders, the longer we continue to judge and blame.

1 in 4 people live with a mental health disorder. Though people discriminate, mental illness does not. It can affect people of any age, ethnicity, religion, sex, or financial status. We are all touched in some way by its effects.

Learn as much as you can to dispel many of the myths that surround mental health issues.

Exposure

Share with others. If you or someone you know is living with a mental health illness, let your voice be heard. Contribute to a dialogue that sheds light on reality and casts stereotypes into the dark. Sharing your experience and knowledge is instrumental in allowing others to learn and feel comforted by the fact that they are not alone.

Support

Respect the rights of individuals with a mental illness. Do not discriminate against them and do not perpetuate negative stereotypes. Do your best to support by respecting the dignity of every person and contributing to the development of community resources.

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