Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness
Dr. David Prescott – Acadia Hospital
September 8, 2009
Why Is Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness Important? There are probably dozens of reasons that challenging the stigma of mental illness and addiction is important. But none seem more compelling than the fact that nearly two-thirds of people who experience a mental illness never receive any type of professional help for their problems. The negative attitudes, fears, and stereotypes that surround mental illness are one of the largest barriers to people receiving professional help.
Stigma: A Mark of Social Disgrace? One definition of stigma is “a mark of social disgrace.” The concern is that our own personal fears and distrust lead us to think about people with mental illness in a way that makes the problem worse. Stigma leads to treating people with mental illness differently than we would treat them if they didn’t have a mental illness. Examples of the forms that stigma against mental illness can take include:
- Stereotyping People with Mental Illness – for example, assuming that people with severe mental illness can never have a job or a family of their own.
- Fearfulness – not talking to someone with mental illness or purposefully avoiding them.
- Discrimination – for example, not considering a person with known mental illness for a volunteer position, renting an apartment, or considering them for a job, based solely on the knowledge that they have, or have had, a mental illness.
- Language – talking about mental illness in a way that makes fun of people with mental illness or perpetuates stereotypes, makes it harder for stigma to be eliminated.
Avoid the Temptation to Say “Mental Illness Doesn’t Affect Me: People usually are not very happy if someone suggests they are prejudiced or hold negative stereotypes. Or, many people may see the issues around mental illness and addiction as not really affecting them or their family. However, the fact is that one in five people worldwide will have a mental or neurological disorder at some time in their life. This statistic virtually guarantees that everyone will be impacted by mental illness, and our ability to provide help in promoting recovery.
Steps Towards Reducing Stigma: Eliminating societal level stereotypes of mental illness is an enormous goal. But, like all big problems, there are important steps that start with individuals. Some things that you could do include:
- Become More Knowledgeable: When we don’t know the facts, it is easier to rely on a stereotype or false belief. Knowledge about mental illness is readily available on the web or in books. Knowing a few simple facts, like that the majority of people with mental illness recover from that illness, can help reduce stigma.
- Watch your Language: One good place to start is to use “people first” language – saying “people with mental illness” instead of “the mentally ill.” And, obviously, eliminating derogatory terms like “psycho” is important.
- Listen: If you know someone with mental illness, listen to their story and their experience. You don’t need to have professional knowledge about treatment to listen. Just offer the respect and dignity you would offer any friend.
For More Information:
Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s “What A Difference a Friend Makes” Campaign: www.whatadifference.samhsa.gov
Acadia Hospital Web Site: www.acadiahospital.org
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: www.nami.org