Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States – one in four Americans experience a mental illness every year. We might think that mental illness is rare, but every one of us has at least one friend, family member, or coworker suffering from a mental health condition. It affects everyone, regardless of age, nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or religion.
Yet, the topic of mental illness is one of society’s biggest taboos. We talk about physical ailments with great ease, but keep our mental health troubles to ourselves, anticipating the negative consequences of our admission. And our silence is a direct result of the stigma surrounding mental health in American society – a mark of disgrace is attached to society’s perception of mental illness, subsequently assigning a set of predetermined beliefs and attributes to those assumed to fall under the label of “mentally ill.”
What is it?
Stigma is loosely defined by the CDC as “the prejudice, avoidance, rejection and discrimination directed at people believed to have an illness, disorder or other trait perceived to be undesirable”. In terms of mental health, stigma is considered to be the negative attitudes and beliefs that society possesses towards those with mental illness.
Public attitude toward mental illness is largely negative – a 2007 survey found that while 57% of adults without mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic towards those with mental illness, only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms agreed. Negative public attitudes often take the form of stereotypes, many of which label those with a mental illness as ‘crazy’, ‘irrational’, ‘incompetent’, or ‘dangerous’.
The stigmatization of mental illness in American society places feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation upon those who suffer from mental health conditions. The stigma attached to mental illness can be described as a campaign of “blaming and shaming”. People afflicted by mental illness are often blamed for it, their feelings are trivialized and invalidated by microaggressions such as “it’s all in your head” or “just get over it.”
The mental health stigma is often internalized by people with mental illnesses in what is known as a “self-stigma.” Through self-stigma, those with mental illnesses share in society’s belief that their illness is a weakness that renders them ‘lesser’ than those without. As a result, they are reluctant to seek treatment, exacerbating the severity of their symptoms and worsening their condition.
Why is it a problem?
The stigma surrounding mental illness is more than just a stereotype – it’s active discrimination. Society’s negative perception of mental health problems puts those afflicted at a marked disadvantage, as deep-rooted fear and misunderstanding lead to behaviors and policies that place undue hardship on the lives of those with mental health conditions.
In America, discrimination towards those suffering from mental illnesses is overwhelmingly systemic. A person with a mental illness is more likely to be criminalized than receive the help that they need. A 2010 study found that there are more people with mental illness in jails and prisons than hospitals. Furthermore, people with mental illnesses have higher rates of homelessness as a result of housing and employment discrimination.
Social discrimination towards those with mental illnesses is especially common – the most prominent example being that of social distancing, or the “exclusion of individuals in a variety of social situations.” As outlined by the graph below, social distancing can present itself in a number of ways – all of which take some form of prejudice and social discrimination.
Image credit: American Psychological Association
How can we combat it?
The best way to end the stigmatization of mental illness is by talking about it. Stigmas arise primarily from a lack of understanding and awareness about the realities of mental illness. Those who perpetuate the stigma aren’t doing so maliciously. They are doing so out of ignorance, and the solution to ignorance is education. By encouraging people to share their personal stories and struggles with mental illness with others, stereotypes can be counteracted and public attitudes changed.
Another way to tackle the mental health stigma is by adjusting the language we use when talking about mental illness. We often don’t realize that the little things we say can be derogatory and invalidating towards those with mental health conditions – for example, using the term “OCD” to characterize an affinity for neatness trivializes the experiences of those who actually suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Image credit: National Alliance on Mental Illness
A person is not defined by their mental illness. It is not a character flaw or a weakness. It is an illness, equally as deserving of our attention as diabetes, cancer, and other physical maladies. Mental illness is something that no one should be made to feel ashamed of, and hopefully, with increased understanding and awareness, no one will.