We’ve been taught to fear the other since birth. The ‘other’ being anything different from the norm. The media has been relentless in its portrayal of the mentally ill. It’s important to know these depictions can be so subtle, we may not even realize the stereotyping. But just because the media might be faulty, it doesn’t mean it shapes our beliefs, right?
Research has shown that a large number of people learned about mental illnesses from the mass media. This is problematic, especially when the 1% of the violent mentally ill characters are supposed to represent everyone who’s mentally ill. The media only shows the most extreme, violent cases for ratings. We’ve seen countless movies and shows of psychotic killers who go on a rampage. They’re deadly. They’re relentless. They’re unpredictable. And they will get you.
Cheryl K. Olson,co-director at Massachusetts General Hospital explains, “Studies have found that dangerousness/crime is the most common theme of stories on mental illness,”
Olson adds,“research suggests that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.”
It’s easy to see why most people can’t see the stigma sufferers of mental illness face. But what exactly is mental illness? What is Stigma?
What is Mental Illness?
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) explains mental illness refers to various mental disorders that are diagnosed. Mental disorders are health conditions. Mental disorders involve alternations in a person’s mood, behavior and thinking (or some combination of the three). This results in distress and/or impaired functioning. Mental disorders can be categorized under organic brain disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders.
What is Stigma?
The Oxford Dictionaries defined stigma as ‘A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person: “the stigma of mental disorder”‘. Stigma is strongly disapproving of someone because they differ from the norm in some aspect. Erving Goffman, a well-known writer and sociologist explains stigma in three ways:
- Having a mental illness (or even receiving such a diagnosis).
- A physical deformity or undesired differences from the norm.
- An association with any particular religion, belief, race,etc.
How Common is Mental Illness in Canada?
CMHA explains, ‘mental illness is increasingly recognized as a serious and growing problem. It is estimated that 1 in 5 Canadians will develop a mental illness at some time in their lives.’ Family, friends and colleagues of those suffering from a mental illness are also impacted. It’s important that people who need help and treatment seek it.
- The 18-24 year age group has the largest number of people with mental illness.
- One third of people who are admitted with a mental illness to hospitals are less than 30.
- Roughly 2.5 million Canadian adults, 18 and older will have a depressive disorder
Fighting the Stigma: Why it’s Important
Despite the growing number of mental illness sufferers across the world, the stigma still persists. CMHA explains that the stigma involved with mental illnesses is a significant obstacle that prevents sufferers from the seeking the help they need. This can be detrimental to their mental health and well being. Why should someone be ashamed to seek the help they need?
Golden Globe and Emmy award winning actress, Glenn Close stated ‘The stigma is toxic. And, like millions of others who live with mental illness in their families, I’ve seen what they endure: the struggle of just getting through the day, and the hurt caused every time someone casually describes someone as “crazy,” “nuts,” or “psycho”.’
I asked two people about their mental illness and stigma online; a recent college graduate who suffered from depression and another woman from an anxiety disorder. They were kind enough to share:
‘The stigma is not necessarily created by people who don’t understand but by those who choose to be ignorant. I think people who tell someone suffering from depression to “cheer up” are just horrible. I think openness is the most important thing. I mean when you hear of people who have everything to live for and some of the things many other strive for suffering from depression it should open people’s eyes.’ –Anonymous.
‘I do remember at times being a little embarrassed by the stigma but I was in too much of a state to really care so it didn’t deter me from getting treatment. I don’t really know how to abolish the stigma. It’s a tough one because people are always going to judge. I think the more people that come out and say hey, I’m a normal person just like you, but I live with this disorder or illness, the better.’ –Michelle, 38.
What We Can Do
- Encourage those suffering from any kind of mental illness to seek treatment
- Acknowledge that mental illnesses can impact anyone, regardless of age, race, class or culture
- Raise awareness that the mentally ill are NOT dangerous
- Discourage others from labeling the mentally ill as ‘psychos’ or other hurtful, demeaning words
- Provide care and support; show them your love
- Educate others about the stigma
Anonymous (interviewee) explained ‘he odd random conversation here and there helps. Sometimes it makes me feel better. Seeing someone smile. Lifting someone’s spirits is always good to lift morale. Just to know that you’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life as opposed to your death being completely unnoticed.’
Any ideas on what we can do to fight the stigma? Feel free to comment and share your ideas!