The Stigma of Mental Illness. By Michael Barness, M.D.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Stigma is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” Other definitions often reference it as a sign of disgrace or discredit. I would add that Stigma is a type of negative stereotype. Having a psychiatric disorder unfortunately carries a negative stigma. Historically mental illness was linked to witches and being possessed.  Although it is becoming more accepted in today’s society we certainly have a long way to go.

Consider this: In one survey conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists it was found that 70% of individuals believed that people with schizophrenia are violent and unpredictable. At the other extreme, patients with mental illness are often seen as victims, pathetic characters, or “the deserving mad.” Readers may be surprised to know that mentally ill individuals are actually no more statistically violent in comparison to those without mental illness. In fact, they are far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violent crimes (Appleby, et al., 2001). Still, even trained medical professionals subscribe to specific stereotypes about mental illness (Keane M. et al., 1990), (Scott DJ. Phillip, 1985).

In my opinion a major contributor to this stigma is the media. Particularly in TV and movies.  Some data suggests that violence can be measured as the central element in television representations in 66% of items about mental illness (Philo, 1996). Think of some the movies you have watched. You will be surprised to see how often characters with mental illness are portrayed negatively. They are shown to have violent and sociopathic tendencies. Or otherwise movies frequently portray psychiatric symptoms as quirky, funny inconveniences.  Movies such as “Identity” or “Me, Myself and Irene” come to mind.  Although they are entertaining to watch, they also portray a misleading and widely inaccurate view of mental illness.

So how do we reverse this stigma?  I believe it begins with understanding that mental illness does not discriminate. It affects millions of men and women worldwide and it is nothing to be ashamed of! Like any other illness, it exists and can be treated. It does not mean you are crazy or incompetent. In fact many very successful and influential people have struggled with mental illness. Everyone from President Abraham Lincoln to Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.  From Nobel Prize winner John Nash to Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. Mental health issues should not be hidden and those affected should not be ashamed.

I find it interesting that the topic of mental health is considered taboo by many and as such it is often avoided and not talked about. This in itself creates a stigma. I believe mental health should be looked at as an essential part of one’s overall physical health. It should not only be put on the forefront but should be discussed as early in life as possible. This is a very powerful way to decrease stigma and improve overall health.  As a Psychiatrist I take on the responsibility of de-stigmatizing mental illness and breaking down the barriers to seeking proper treatment. Fewer stigmas mean less negative stereotypes. Less negative stereotypes means less prejudice, less discrimination and ultimately a healthier, happier world.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. Please check back soon for more articles related to the mental health field.

*For more information on bringing mental health to the forefront and decreasing its stigma please visit a great organization: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).