Historically, the treatment of people with mental illness can be described as nothing less than horrific. From burning people at the stake in the medieval ages because they were “products of the devil” to mass sterilization and mass murder initiated by the eugenics movement in Nazi Germany, people with mental illness have been demonised throughout. Even terms associated with mental illness have negative connotations associated with them today. Take the word ‘asylum’ for instance. By definition it is a place offering safety of shelter or an institution for the care of people, yet the word often conjures imagery of straight jackets, incoherent, nonsensical and dangerous patients, nursing staff akin to nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and generally equate it to a “looney bin”.
So where do these attitudes about mental illness come from? The origins and factors of stigma are many: as a society we tend to regard emotions as stupid, soft, touchy-feely, embarrassing or worthless, they are irrational thoughts in a world that preaches rationality as a means of living. Historically emotions have even sometimes been disregarded condescendingly as “things for women and children”, societal standards for masculinity are also a barrier for help seeking behaviours and can contribute to psychological distress. Another reason is fear, people are often frightened by the unknown, the unpredictable, the different or the dangerous even though these misguided views about mental health conditions have no basis in fact or statistic1. A study in the UK found the most commonly held misconception about mental health conditions is that the people who have them are dangerous, additionally negative opinions greatly overemphasise social handicaps connected to people with mental health conditions.2 Both willing and unwilling ignorance is also a large contributor to stigma, research shows that even professionals in mental health are no less susceptible to believing stereotypes about mental illness.3,4 This ignorance can be further propagated through the use of the medical model as the sole explanation for mental illnesses. Some cases of mental health conditions cannot be attributed to biological and medical causes and the implication is that mental health conditions are on par with physical. It implies that people with mental health conditions are inherently different from so-called ‘normal’ people. Additionally, Goffman proposed mental health stigma remains pervasive today because it is what he termed ‘discreditable stigma’. That is the idea that because the signs of mental illness are relatively hidden, they may potentially be discreditable.5 After all there are no witnesses to the internal debilitating conflicts within someone’s mind, they are silent and are unable to broadcast their context or history.
Suffice to say we do not do a good job of portraying mental health conditions to the rest of society. The majority of the time people with mental health conditions are portrayed as unpredictable, dangerous or someone to be feared. In the US after most gun massacres there are trends in the media and from politicians to label the shooters as mentally ill or psychotic. This is despite of the fact that only about 5% of the perpetrators of gun violence are actually diagnosed with a mental illness. Additionally, people with a mental health illness are ten times more likely to be the victims of violence than those without mental health conditions.6 Statistically speaking, people who are diagnosed with serious mental illness are five times less likely to be violent than Hispanic males.7 Below is a chart depicting factual information to dispel many of the myths surrounding mental health conditions association with violence:
The next most common representation of people with mental health conditions are those of victims and this overemphasises what people with mental health conditions cannot do and thus contributes to internalisation of doubt and self-stigma consequently disempowering them. Research shows self-determination of life’s goals is closely related to recovery8 and the negative disempowering stereotypes associated with people with mental illnesses are detrimental and often loom over the path towards their recovery.
People with every sort of mental health condition are entirely capable of achieving a full range of work, education, relationship, recreation, independent living and spiritual goals, the belief that they are not is an insidious misconception and this is poorly understood by society. The trials and tribulations of people with mental health conditions should be acknowledged and often the glaring hole forgotten by advocates is the provision of hope, commendation and encouragement for taking steps to recovery. In order to erase – that’s right erase, not understand – positive affirming attitudes must replace previous unjust misconceptions and beliefs. The video below is an excellent showcase for people with mental health conditions and displays a much better approach to how people with a mental illness should be represented and have their story told:
Extensive research indicates the best method for reducing stigma in adults is to break down stereotypes by being exposed to people with mental health conditions and their stories.9 As a means of challenging the ignorance that underpins prejudice, people with mental health conditions should be encouraged to come out and share their battles with symptoms, stigma, and recovery. While apprehension is expected due to the risks posed by discrimination, studies indicate that coming out is beneficial for the individual by reducing self-stigma and helping build a positive self-image as well as the possible gains to the community.10-13
Please follow the links in the sidebar on the right titled “Connect With Others – Personal Stories of Mental Illnesses” and “Mental Health WA – Personal Stories of Mental Illnesses”. All people with mental health conditions deserve to know: you are not ‘broken’ and you do not need ‘fixing’, there is hope, you can accomplish your goals and reclaim control of your life, there are many resources and opportunities to help you do so. You are a person not a diagnosis.