Victims Stigma

contributed by Margy Bookman, Psychiatric Nurse

Margy B 2

“Lunatic, Crazy, Psycho, Bipolar.” How many times have we heard these and other derogatory names directed towards an individual (usually behind the back)? 

    Stigmatization of people with mental disorders is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and/or avoidance. Stigma leads the (public) to avoid people with mental disorders. It reduces access to resources and leads to low self-esteem, isolation and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Stigma results in outright discrimination and abuse. More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society”---U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher. (1998-2002)

What is stigma?  When someone seems to be different from us, we may view him/her in a damaging, stereotyped manner.  People who have characteristics that society views negatively are too often stigmatized. Unfortunately for individuals with psychiatric/mental illness, all too often stigma is a reality.  Stigma is the most significant barrier to treatment and is an ugly and unfortunate consequence of society’s long held biases about mental illness. In general our society feels more uncomfortable with mental illness than with other physical illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.  Because of inaccuracies, fear, and deprecating media portrayals, we have been led to believe that people with a mental illness have character weaknesses, are dangerous and therefore should be avoided and feared.

Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of age, race, religious beliefs, education or economic status. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are impacted by one or more mental disorders.  Despite significant advances in medical science, there continues to be many unsolved puzzles related to the brain, and many of its functions and dysfunctions remain a mystery.  Researchers have discovered that many mental disorders are believed to have neurobiological causes, many of which are genetic, or may occur due to excessive stress, substance abuse or psychological trauma.

Because brain abnormalities are not visible, it seems more difficult for society to acknowledge the reality of mental illness. We often forget that our brain, like other organs, is susceptible to disease. Mental illness often exhibits symptoms of irritability, agitation, extreme sadness and hopelessness, mood cycling and the inability to feel any sort of pleasure in life. The severity of behavioral symptoms varies, but instead of receiving compassion and understanding, people with mental illnesses often experience prejudice, cruelty, hostility, exclusion and rejection.  Tragically, stigma  breeds fear and shame and  prevents people from seeking help.

We can fight stigma when we have the real facts about mental disorders. We need to change the words that are used to describe people who suffer in silence. We need to fight insurance companies who unfairly discriminate against people who have current or past struggles with mental illness.  We need to stop the destructive depictions and labels that are used. Why are there so many people who never get help because of long held beliefs that one should be “strong” and be able to “fix” themselves? The pervasive shame and silence about mental illness within our culture is appalling.  The high suicide rate is evidence enough of the destructive force and high cost of stigma.

Each of us should pause for a moment to consider what our attitudes are about psychiatric problems.  Not just the ones we say out loud, but the ones we carry inside, the thoughts we may have but don’t express.  With National Mental Health Awareness month just completed, it’s a good time for every one of us to remember to be more understanding, more compassionate, and more supportive.