“The Stigma and Discrimination of Mental Illness”

“You don’t look like you have leukemia. I think you’re making it up to get attention.” “Well, call me when you decide to stop having arthritis.” “The cure for your epilepsy is to try harder not to have seizures. Just pull yourself together.” We wouldn’t say these things to someone with a physical illness, but people with mental illness hear such statements all the time. According to the CDC, in any given year, 1 in 4 adults in this country has a mental disorder. With numbers like these, it’s majorly important that we as a society change the way we view mental illness and treat those who live with it. The facts are clear: the stigma of mental illness is undeniable. Let’s first discuss what mental illness stigma is, then some reasons why it is harmful, and lastly what you can do to fight it.

So what exactly is stigma? Stigma shows up in different forms. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health defines stigma as “a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” So, stigma begins in our minds. It happens when we believe myths and popular media portrayals of mental illness, such as, “All people with mental illness are violent,” and we start to put those with mental illness in a box. We assign labels and see them as different from us. And the moment we start to see someone or something as “different”, it sets the stage for wrongful treatment to occur. Think of racism or sexism. Stigma is no different, although we don’t consider it a blatant social taboo in that sense. And like those forms of prejudice, stigma manifests itself outwardly—in both subtle and overt discrimination. Let’s talk about the harm this causes—both for the person with mental illness and for society at large.

First, stigma harms the individual with mental illness. The CDC reports that only 20% of adults with a mental disorder saw a mental health provider in the past year, and the shame and embarrassment associated with getting help is a major barrier. We have created a society where people don’t want others to find out about their “issues”, and for this reason alone, many avoid seeking treatment. Instead, they may turn to dangerous coping methods such as smoking, binge eating or drinking, which raises their risk for chronic disease and early death. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, those living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than the general public—largely due to treatable conditions. On a broader level, stigma harms society. Discrimination against people with mental illness leads to unequal access to housing, health care, employment, education, and community support, and this leads to unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Serious mental illness costs America over $190 billion in lost earnings per year. At the highest level, stigma influences policymaking. For example, stigma shaped the creation of the Medicaid law, limiting the funds used for treating mental illness but not physical illness. Such things make it difficult to access services for those who do seek help. The June 25, 2014 issue of USA Today tells the story of Laura Pogliano, whose 22-year-old son has schizophrenia. She lost her home after she chose to pay her son’s $250,000 hospital bills instead of her mortgage because his care was not covered by insurance. With all these barriers, is it any wonder that on average, people with mental illness wait nearly a decade after their symptoms first appear to receive treatment?

So, what can you do about this problem? A lot. You see, stigma is something we create, which means it is also something we can reverse. First, you can educate yourself about mental illness. It’s as simple as doing a Google search. Learn the truth about these diseases so you can recognize myths and misconceptions when you hear them and point out, “Hey, that’s not true.” Education also gives you the awareness necessary to change the way you speak. Don’t toss around terms like “crazy”, “lunatic”, or “the mentally ill”. Also, don’t say things like, “He’s bipolar,” or “She’s an anorexic.” A person is not their illness. Instead, say, “She has anorexia,” or “a person with bipolar disorder”. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, calls this “people-first language”. I encourage you to take it a step further, and actually talk about mental illness. According to Patrick Corrigan, psychology professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, “Research shows that the most promising way to dispel stereotypes is to meet someone with mental illness face-to-face.” That’s why I tell my story.

My name is Mei. I’m twenty years old. I love reading, writing, art, psychology, and watching The Big Bang Theory. I dream of being a social worker, falling in love, and traveling the world. And— I live with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an eating disorder. I found that I’d internalized the stigma of mental illness so much that I’d ask people, “Do you still want to be my friend?” I realized I was almost expecting people to judge me as being “mental” or “unstable” and consequently not want to have a relationship with me. And I thought, “What is so wrong with our society that I feel I have to ask this question? If I had, say, asthma, or chronic migraines, would I still feel I’d have to ask, “Now that you know I have this condition, do you still want to be my friend?”? That leads to my third point, which is simply, be a friend. SAMHSA emphasizes the importance of positive relationships and social connections for mental illness recovery. The handout I’ve given you today lists some things you can do to help someone with a mental illness. Because mental illness is so widespread, I guarantee you that right now, you have someone in your life who needs this.

Today we talked about three aspects of mental illness stigma—what it is, why it hurts everyone, and what we can do about it. Friends, do you realize that you have the ability to create a world where someone like me, who lives with mental illness, can expect the same level of support and care as someone who has a physical illness? Maybe you can’t change the attitudes of everyone in the country, but you can choose how YOU act. You can be that caring and nonjudgmental friend someone needs. You can speak up and say, “We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about this.” I’m doing it. Will you do the same?

The handout I created and passed out to each audience member as my visual aid.

I got an A on that speech, but what meant much more to me were the handwritten comments I received in the anonymous peer assessments we filled out after each speech.

  • Thank you, Meiyi. I [will] continue to do my part…Yes! as long as you want me, I’ll be your friend.
  • She made me think about considering their point of view because the way she put herself in the speech…
  • …thanks for making a stand…
  • I liked how you closed up with a personal story and encouraged everyone to help. It was a good combination of hooking everyones heart and helping them to want to help.
  • …I do have to say it makes me want to take a second look at her topic.
  • …It really hit close to heart because I’ve dealt with this issue…
  • I will change the way I refer to people with mental illness. (He is bipolar)

“Wow, that gave me the feels, brah!” Jay, one of the straight-out-of-high-school, backwards-cap-sporting, Arizona-iced-tea-guzzling students remarked, clapping me on the shoulder as I passed by. I smiled and thanked him, heart still pounding as I flirted with this unfamiliar, exhilirating spotlight. My classmates congratulated me on a job well done, and I began to feel the way I had when I’d finished my first semester of college—capable, brimming, rock-the-world empowered, like I could do anything. The cliche made the writer in me groan, but I was blossoming.

To this day, whenever I talk about mental illness I have to forcibly push through an automatic psychological resistance, a direct result of the stigma that thrives around these issues. But I’m just as determined to combat it. I have been called “disarmingly honest” by people who are surprised by how open I am about a topic others tend to hush up around. I propose a different take. Mental illness is not my fault; therefore, there’s no reason for it to be a source of shame or reflection on me as a person—so why shouldn’t I talk about it? Who am I helping by keeping my story and collective knowledge of these issues to myself like some guilty secret? No one benefits when we avoid talking about topics commonly considered “disgraceful”, “private matters”, or “taboo”, such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and mental illness. In fact, not talking about these things guarantees that they’ll have even more devastating effects on our lives. I want people to understand that. In the meantime, I have to pave the way.

So, I talk.

Is it hard for me to do this? It does get easier the more I do it, but it still takes me a considerable amount of willpower and strength. Do I feel the societal judgment and shaming with each word I speak? You bet. Do I still do it? Yes, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. I talk about the medication I’m on, chronic and acute symptoms I battle, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, and triggers. I talk about paralyzing depression, about my “adventures” in therapy, about past crises and coping skills. Often, once they get past their initial discomfort/surprise, people open up to me about their struggles with their own mental health, or offer their opinions on what I’ve shared. When this happens, I try to be a nonjudgmental and supportive listener. I like to think I’m getting better at this all the time.

As I wrap up today’s blog, I reiterate the last point of my speech, in which I attempted to enlist my classmates in my efforts to end the stigma that has accompanied mental illness for centuries. Now, I extend that same challenge to you. Will you speak up about mental illness, and other historically “forbidden” topics, in your professional and personal life? Will you take a stand against the miseducation and stereotypes, despite what other people may think or you perceive they’ll think?

Will you join me?

Tell me:

  • What common myth/stereotype irks/infuriates you? (For me, the popular “default” image of someone with mental illness as a filthy, disheveled man or woman with violent tendencies, rambling incoherently as they wander the streets. Yes, some people with mental illness do fit this stereotype, but most of us appear “normal”, people at whom you wouldn’t glance twice.)
  • What aspect of mental health would you like to see addressed more publicly? (For me, I’d like to see more people talking about PTSD as a result of traumas other than combat. For instance, did you know that children in foster care suffer higher rates of PTSD than veterans?)

“The Stigma of Mental Illness”

“You don’t look like you have leukemia. I think you’re making it up to get attention.” “Well, call me when you decide to stop having arthritis.” “The cure for your epilepsy is to try harder not to have seizures. Just pull yourself together.” We wouldn’t say these things to someone with a physical illness, but people with mental illness hear such statements all the time. According to the CDC, in any given year, 1 in 4 adults in this country has a mental disorder. With numbers like these, it’s majorly important that we as a society change the way we view mental illness and treat those who live with it. The facts are clear: the stigma of mental illness is undeniable. Let’s first discuss what mental illness stigma is, then some reasons why it is harmful, and lastly what you can do to fight it.

So what exactly is stigma? Stigma shows up in different forms. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health defines stigma as “a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” So, stigma begins in our minds. It happens when we believe myths and popular media portrayals of mental illness, such as, “All people with mental illness are violent,” and we start to put those with mental illness in a box. We assign labels and see them as different from us. And the moment we start to see someone or something as “different”, it sets the stage for wrongful treatment to occur. Think of racism or sexism. Stigma is no different, although we don’t consider it a blatant social taboo in that sense. And like those forms of prejudice, stigma manifests itself outwardly—in both subtle and overt discrimination. Let’s talk about the harm this causes—both for the person with mental illness and for society at large.

First, stigma harms the individual with mental illness. The CDC reports that only 20% of adults with a mental disorder saw a mental health provider in the past year, and the shame and embarrassment associated with getting help is a major barrier. We have created a society where people don’t want others to find out about their “issues”, and for this reason alone, many avoid seeking treatment. Instead, they may turn to dangerous coping methods such as smoking, binge eating or drinking, which raises their risk for chronic disease and early death. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, those living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than the general public—largely due to treatable conditions. On a broader level, stigma harms society. Discrimination against people with mental illness leads to unequal access to housing, health care, employment, education, and community support, and this leads to unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Serious mental illness costs America over $190 billion in lost earnings per year. At the highest level, stigma influences policymaking. For example, stigma shaped the creation of the Medicaid law, limiting the funds used for treating mental illness but not physical illness. Such things make it difficult to access services for those who do seek help. The June 25, 2014 issue of USA Today tells the story of Laura Pogliano, whose 22-year-old son has schizophrenia. She lost her home after she chose to pay her son’s $250,000 hospital bills instead of her mortgage because his care was not covered by insurance. With all these barriers, is it any wonder that on average, people with mental illness wait nearly a decade after their symptoms first appear to receive treatment?

So, what can you do about this problem? A lot. You see, stigma is something we create, which means it is also something we can reverse. First, you can educate yourself about mental illness. It’s as simple as doing a Google search. Learn the truth about these diseases so you can recognize myths and misconceptions when you hear them and point out, “Hey, that’s not true.” Education also gives you the awareness necessary to change the way you speak. Don’t toss around terms like “crazy”, “lunatic”, or “the mentally ill”. Also, don’t say things like, “He’s bipolar,” or “She’s an anorexic.” A person is not their illness. Instead, say, “She has anorexia,” or “a person with bipolar disorder”. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, calls this “people-first language”. I encourage you to take it a step further, and actually talk about mental illness. According to Patrick Corrigan, psychology professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, “Research shows that the most promising way to dispel stereotypes is to meet someone with mental illness face-to-face.” That’s why I tell my story.

My name is Mei. I’m twenty years old. I love reading, writing, art, psychology, and watching The Big Bang Theory. I dream of being a social worker, falling in love, and traveling the world. And— I live with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an eating disorder. I found that I’d internalized the stigma of mental illness so much that I’d ask people, “Do you still want to be my friend?” I realized I was almost expecting people to judge me as being “mental” or “unstable” and consequently not want to have a relationship with me. And I thought, “What is so wrong with our society that I feel I have to ask this question? If I had, say, asthma, or chronic migraines, would I still feel I’d have to ask, “Now that you know I have this condition, do you still want to be my friend?”? That leads to my third point, which is simply, be a friend. SAMHSA emphasizes the importance of positive relationships and social connections for mental illness recovery. The handout I’ve given you today lists some things you can do to help someone with a mental illness. Because mental illness is so widespread, I guarantee you that right now, you have someone in your life who needs this.

Today we talked about three aspects of mental illness stigma—what it is, why it hurts everyone, and what we can do about it. Friends, do you realize that you have the ability to create a world where someone like me, who lives with mental illness, can expect the same level of support and care as someone who has a physical illness? Maybe you can’t change the attitudes of everyone in the country, but you can choose how YOU act. You can be that caring and nonjudgmental friend someone needs. You can speak up and say, “We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about this.” I’m doing it. Will you do the same?

The handout I created and passed out to each audience member as my visual aid.

I got an A on that speech, but what meant much more to me were the handwritten comments I received in the anonymous peer assessments we filled out after each speech.

  • Thank you, Meiyi. I [will] continue to do my part…Yes! as long as you want me, I’ll be your friend.
  • She made me think about considering their point of view because the way she put herself in the speech…
  • …thanks for making a stand…
  • I liked how you closed up with a personal story and encouraged everyone to help. It was a good combination of hooking everyones heart and helping them to want to help.
  • …I do have to say it makes me want to take a second look at her topic.
  • …It really hit close to heart because I’ve dealt with this issue…
  • I will change the way I refer to people with mental illness. (He is bipolar)

“Wow, that gave me the feels, brah!” Jay, one of the straight-out-of-high-school, backwards-cap-sporting, Arizona-iced-tea-guzzling students remarked, clapping me on the shoulder as I passed by. I smiled and thanked him, heart still pounding as I flirted with this unfamiliar, exhilirating spotlight. My classmates congratulated me on a job well done, and I began to feel the way I had when I’d finished my first semester of college—capable, brimming, rock-the-world empowered, like I could do anything. The cliche made the writer in me groan, but I was blossoming.

To this day, whenever I talk about mental illness I have to forcibly push through an automatic psychological resistance, a direct result of the stigma that thrives around these issues. But I’m just as determined to combat it. I have been called “disarmingly honest” by people who are surprised by how open I am about a topic others tend to hush up around. I propose a different take. Mental illness is not my fault; therefore, there’s no reason for it to be a source of shame or reflection on me as a person—so why shouldn’t I talk about it? Who am I helping by keeping my story and collective knowledge of these issues to myself like some guilty secret? No one benefits when we avoid talking about topics commonly considered “disgraceful”, “private matters”, or “taboo”, such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and mental illness. In fact, not talking about these things guarantees that they’ll have even more devastating effects on our lives. I want people to understand that. In the meantime, I have to pave the way.

So, I talk.

Is it hard for me to do this? It does get easier the more I do it, but it still takes me a considerable amount of willpower and strength. Do I feel the societal judgment and shaming with each word I speak? You bet. Do I still do it? Yes, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. I talk about the medication I’m on, chronic and acute symptoms I battle, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, and triggers. I talk about paralyzing depression, about my “adventures” in therapy, about past crises and coping skills. Often, once they get past their initial discomfort/surprise, people open up to me about their struggles with their own mental health, or offer their opinions on what I’ve shared. When this happens, I try to be a nonjudgmental and supportive listener. I like to think I’m getting better at this all the time.

As I wrap up today’s blog, I reiterate the last point of my speech, in which I attempted to enlist my classmates in my efforts to end the stigma that has accompanied mental illness for centuries. Now, I extend that same challenge to you. Will you speak up about mental illness, and other historically “forbidden” topics, in your professional and personal life? Will you take a stand against the miseducation and stereotypes, despite what other people may think or you perceive they’ll think?

Will you join Griffin Ambitions? Give now

Tell me:

  • What common myth/stereotype irks/infuriates you? (For me, the popular “default” image of someone with mental illness as a filthy, disheveled man or woman with violent tendencies, rambling incoherently as they wander the streets. Yes, some people with mental illness do fit this stereotype, but most of us appear “normal”, people at whom you wouldn’t glance twice.)
  • What aspect of mental health would you like to see addressed more publicly? (For me, I’d like to see more people talking about PTSD as a result of traumas other than combat. For instance, did you know that children in foster care suffer higher rates of PTSD than veterans?)

-JMG

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