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

Having a psychiatric disorder carries an unfortunate negative stigma. According to Merriam-Webster, a stigma is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” Others refer to a stigma as a sign of disgrace or discredit. I would add negative stereotypes to stigma’s characteristics. While mental illness has become more accepted in today’s society, we still have a long way to go.

During the middle ages, mental illness was linked to witchcraft and being possessed, and though we are significantly more enlightened now than centuries ago, a survey conducted in 1998 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 70% of individuals believed that people with schizophrenia are violent and unpredictable. The reality is far different. Statistically speaking, mentally ill individuals are no more violent than those without mental illness, and are actually far more likely to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators (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). I believe that the media contributes to this. Think of the movies and television shows you’ve seen that portray characters with mental illness negatively, with violent and sociopathic tendencies. Some data suggests that violence can be measured as the central element in 66% of television representations of mental illness (Philo, 1996). Other movies such as “Identity” or “Me, Myself and Irene” portray psychiatric symptoms as quirky, funny inconveniences. Though they may be entertaining to watch, they create a misleading and widely inaccurate view that leads some to see patients with mental illness as victims, pathetic characters, or as “the deserving mad” — another harmful stigma.

So how do we reverse the trend? I believe we begin by communicating that mental illness does not discriminate. It affects millions of men and women worldwide, including respected figures like President Abraham Lincoln and actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, from Nobel Prize winner John Nash to Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw. Many very successful and influential people have been diagnosed with mental illness and — like any other illness — it is nothing to be ashamed of. Mental illness does not mean you are violent or incompetent, and it can be treated.

Mental health has long been considered a taboo topic, and avoiding its discussion can itself create a stigma. I believe mental health should be viewed as an essential part of one’s overall physical condition and discussed as early in life as possible. Doing so would be a powerful way to decrease stigma while at the same time improving overall health. As a psychiatrist I assume the responsibility of breaking down the barriers to seeking proper treatment. Decreasing stigma would minimize negative stereotypes, and that would lead to less prejudice, less discrimination, and ultimately a healthier, happier, more accepting 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).