Stigmas surrounding mental health persist & hurt

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Cohen Perry, Staff Writer

Throughout countless generations, people categorized as mentally “insane” have dealt with a variety of mistreatment or stigmatization, whether it be from their community, family or the media. Even in recent years, and in Western societies that would like to view themselves as the most medically and socially progressive in the world, ignorance surrounding mental health conditions are still prevalent and just as damaging as ever.

What is a stigma? Stigma can be defined as, ‘when a person is viewed as an ‘other’. This “other” is denied full social acceptance. Most stigmas tend to come from the media, movies, and television shows. One example of stigma is  viewing people with mental health issues as potentially violent. Most recently, countless news reports have described the perpetrators of mass shootings as a person who has a “history of mental illness.” Many TV shows and movies often have a violent character and use their mental health problems as a justification for it. This stigma has a big impact on how people with mental illness are viewed in society and how those people treat themselves.

According to the Mental Health America, there are 43.7 million Americans that deal with some kind of mental illness. Many people who deal with mental illness are 6-7 times less likely to be employed, which makes 70-90% of people dealing with mental illness unemployed. The main reason why they have such a hard time finding a job is that many employers think that mentally ill people are not capable of working, which is incorrect. In 2011, 6,019 Australians were surveyed and when asked the majority of the participants said that they would not hire a person with depression or schizophrenia because they are “dangerous” and “unpredictable.” WISE Employment reported that 72% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have hired a person who deals with some type of mental health issue have reported having a positive experience.

The stigma around mental illness often carries into government organizations, such as the justice system and healthcare companies. Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice has reported that a person who deals with some kind of mental illness is 10 times more likely to be jailed instead of being to a committed to a psychiatric hospital. In addition to the government’s efforts to criminalize mental health conditions, the private sector discriminates as well. Healthcare companies do not pay for most of the things that are needed for treatment, such as therapy. Those that do, may pay for a limited number of sessions, so ongoing problems are ignored. Many companies pay for medication only, providing no alternatives for people who would like to get well without drugs or need more help than what medication might offer. When medical insurance companies do offer a therapy option, they will typically insure only the lowest cost therapists, leading to the worst possible care. Healthcare companies and the justice systems often ignore and neglect mental health issues, and the support they offer is rarely sufficient and send a stinging message to those suffering from mental illness – your problem isn’t real, isn’t important or is your fault.

As a result, many of the people who are diagnosed gradually develop their own ‘self-stigma’, an internalized sense of shame from the diagnosis. They begin to believe everything they’ve heard from those around them, even if if it runs counter to their own experience. This self-stigma can often lead to the diagnosed individual seeking little to no treatment, which can ultimately progress to a much worse situation or condition.

Laura Greenstein, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), suggests tangible ways of getting rid of mental health stigmas. Starting with, talking openly. When you talk openly about mental health it lets people know that it is okay to have a mental illness, and it can possibly help end self-stigma. Open dialogue also educates others about what mental health really is.

Greenstein also suggests that being conscious of your language can be helpful. Using terms like “crazy”, “psycho” or “insane”, casually or at all, can send a message that mentally-ill people the same, threatening and damaged. Greenstein cautions us to avoid simplifying, generalizing or miscategorizing mental health conditions. When describing unrelated things with the name of a mental illness, like “the weather is so bipolar” or “I’m really OCD”,  it often trivializes these health conditions as less severe than they are or overgeneralizes them in a way that perpetuates misconceptions about the condition.

The last suggestion that Greenstein made was to call out the media when they are stigmatizing or stereotyping mental health conditions. Since a significant amount of mental health stereotypes are perpetuated in the media, it is important to call them out when there is a movie, TV show, or news story that paints mental illness is a negative and damaging light. Write a letter, send an email, post on a website to acknowledge these mischaracterizations whenever possible.

Yet, the most important solution to ending these stigmas is recognizing the equality between physical and mental health. As a society, we often see physical health as more important because we have tangible proof that it is real and actually happening, which often leaves mental health issues pushed under the rug. If we advocate for equality between the two it can possibly result in real care options for people with mental illness. Our society needs to recognize that the brain is just another organ in the body. We have undeniably made progress in terms of our views on mental illness. With increased conversation about these conditions, the topic is undeniably easier to talk about. Yet despite addressing mental health issues more frequently, fear, false assumptions, and negative stereotypes continue. Taking the course suggested by Greenstein can eventually lead to a more caring, accepting and functional society. We need to stop inflating mental health conditions.

Yet, we also need to start regarding individuals who suffer from these conditions with the same seriousness and neutrality we give people with health issues such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Health challenges stemming from the neck up, shouldn’t carry greater shame or garner less empathy than any other health concern. When it comes to increasing cases of depression, anxiety, panic, obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others, we need to exercise awareness, sensitivity, and compassion.