The stigma attached to mental illness is unfair, unjust … and unchanged

6a0105369e3ea1970b0147e0e4ca63970b 320wi - The stigma attached to mental illness is unfair, unjust ... and unchanged Research has shown that there is little to no relationship between “mental illness” and violent behavior.

But try telling the public that. 

Stereotypes are powerful, and not only is this one a thousand of years old, but it’s reinforced every night on prime time when cop shows and procedural dramas portray schizophrenic or psychotic killers. 

This fear has serious consequences:  the General Social Survey (GSS) showed that as of 2006 the majority of people were not willing to work closely or socialize with the person in the vignette who was schizophrenic or alcohol dependent. They even indicatd that they are unwilling to have them as neighbors, marry into their families and even perceived them as being potentially violent. Major depression was not seen as being dangerous, but the stigma related to this was still unchanged.

Given that the link between mental illness and violent behavior is illusory, it sounds like this is just the kind of damaging stereotype that needs to be corrected by a public awareness campaign.  The trouble is it’s been tried, several times, and it’s not working. 

In fact, the GSS shows that American attitudes towards mental illness have changed very little from 1996 – 2006.

Over the past decade mental health activists advocated for a shift in treatment from therapy to drugs in the hopes of altering what was seen as altered brain chemistry. It was all in an effort to counter earlier thinking that those who were depressed or schizophrenic were actually just sick, the problem was theirs and theirs alone. The new anti-stigma campaign attempted to shift the belief that a person who was mentally ill was broken, sick and will never get better. Historically, this was the long held belief. Thousands of people spent their entire lives locked away in the mostly inhumane conditions, drugged and shocked into mental “health.”  Today the mental health field is more humane, but the stigma remains.

In fact, the perception of mental illness is the greatest barrier for those to seek any help for their own well-being. There seems to be an idea that there “mental illness” is only bad, dangerous and that there is very little hope. It does not get equated with other “illnesses” that are diagnosed and successfully treated.

Considering the results of this study, it’s not surprising that not too many people have a desire to be medicalized or treated like a broken human being. Men and women resist seeking treatment for a physical complaints and are more likely to deny mental health needs even more. Public opinion influences policy and funding for mental health as well as the emotional lives of many who are in the place of needing help.

The anti-stigma campaigns need to re-evaluate their efforts from multiple fronts. The concept of “mental illness” must be reexamined and moved away from the medical model of our psychological well being (treat it and it will go away) to be seen as a fundamental aspect of humanity.  Anti-stigma campaigns can focus on a more strength based approach such as the National Empowerment Center (NEC) which has emphasized the importance of hope, self-determination, and assistance from people who believe in you.

In an article in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Craig Newnes suggests that the use of language is detrimental, “The service user/survivor movement is returning to old language –breakdown, madness, crisis, recovery – language that brings fresh ways of thinking to the area of mental health, language that does not emphasize ‘otherness,’ language that holds out hope.” He calls for the fields of psychology and psychiatry “to abandon the medical ways of looking at distress”

He’s asking that we reconsider how we see healthy, and how we see treatment. The belief that mental illness is a permanent or long term condition must be replaced with the idea that recovery can happen. This shift must happen in all areas, from the physicians, psychologists to the psychiatrists to the families, loved ones and even the service user.  As the authors suggest, campaigns and education must focus on the person, and like many of the successful programs for groups previously labeled as disabled, focus on strengths rather than deficits.


— Makenna Berry

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