What is Stigma?
Stigma goes far beyond the misuse of words and information, it is about disrespect. Stigma is commonly defined as the use of stereotypes and labels when describing someone. Stereotypes are often attached to people who are living with a mental illness. The simple fact is that no one fully understands how the brain works and why, at times, it works differently in different people. Our society tends to not give the same acceptance to brain disorders as we do to other “physical” disorders such as diabetes or hypertension.
Even the term itself, “mental illness” suggests that the illness is not a legitimate medical condition, but rather a problem caused by one’s own choices and actions. People may blame the individual and think that his or her condition is “all in their head.” They may think that a mental illness suggests a character flaw, that if the person was just strong enough or determined enough, he or she could “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and “just get over it.” Such misconceptions and resulting stigma can limit opportunities, standing in the way of jobs, housing, equality in insurance coverage, quality treatment and rehabilitation, adequate research, and the community understanding and supports afforded to those with physical illnesses.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly two thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental disorder do not seek treatment. Can you imagine your reaction if only 1 out of every 3 of your friends sought help for heart disease, cancer, or even a broken arm? That is what stigma can do! The stigma surrounding mental illness, and resulting misunderstanding, fear, and discrimination can and must be exposed and overcome. You can help by learning the facts, sharing this information with family and friends, and speaking out!
Some Common Myths and Facts about Mental Illness:
Myth: There’s no hope for people with mental illnesses.
FACT: There are more treatments, strategies, and community supports than ever before, and even more are on the horizon. People with mental illnesses lead active, productive lives.
Myth: I can’t do anything for someone with mental illness.
FACT: You can do a lot, starting with the way you act and how you speak. You can nurture an environment that builds on people’s strengths and promotes good mental health. For example:
- Avoid labeling people with words like “crazy,” “wacko,” “loony,” or by their diagnosis. Speak up when you hear others using these damaging words, whether you are among friends in a social setting, read it in a newspaper article, or see mischaracterizations on television.
- Use people first language. For instance, instead of saying someone is a “schizophrenic” say “a person with schizophrenia.”
- Treat people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity, as you would anybody else.
- Respect the rights of people with mental illnesses and don’t discriminate against them when it comes to housing, employment, or education. Like other people with disabilities, people with mental health needs are protected under Federal and State laws.
Myth: People with mental illnesses are violent and unpredictable.
FACT: In reality, the vast majority of people who have a mental illness are no more violent than anyone else. You probably know someone with a mental illness and don’t even realize it.
Myth: Mental illnesses cannot affect me.
FACT: Mental illnesses are surprisingly common; they affect almost every family in America. Mental illnesses do not discriminate based on geography, income, education, or other social status — they can affect anyone.
Myth: Mental illness is the same as mental retardation.
FACT: The two are distinct disorders. A mental retardation diagnosis is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and difficulties with certain daily living skills. In contrast, people with mental illnesses—health conditions that cause changes in a person’s thinking, mood, and behavior—have varied intellectual functioning, just like the general population.
Myth: Mental illnesses are brought on by a weakness of character.
FACT: Mental illnesses are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Research has shown genetic and biological factors are associated with schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism. Social influences, such as loss of a loved one or a job, can also contribute to the development of various disorders.
Myth: People with mental illnesses cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.
FACT: In essence, all jobs are stressful to some extent. Productivity is maximized when there is a good match between the employee’s needs and working conditions, whether or not the individual has mental health needs.
Myth: People with mental illnesses, even those who have received effective treatment and have recovered, tend to be second-rate workers on the job.
FACT: Employers who have hired people with mental illnesses report good attendance and punctuality, as well as motivation, quality of work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) show that there are no differences in productivity when people with mental illnesses are compared to other employees.
Myth: Once people develop mental illnesses, they will never recover.
FACT: Studies show that most people with mental illnesses get better, and many recover completely. Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities. For some individuals, recovery is the ability to live a fulfilling and productive life. For others, recovery implies the reduction or complete remission of symptoms. Science has shown that having hope plays an integral role in an individual’s recovery.
Myth: Therapy and self-help are wastes of time. Why bother when you can just take one of those pills you hear about on television?
FACT: Treatment varies depending on the individual. A lot of people work with therapists, rehabilitation professionals, their peers, psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers in their recovery process. They also use self-help strategies and community supports. Often these methods are combined with some of the most advanced medications available.
Myth: Children do not experience mental illnesses. Their actions are just products of bad parenting.
FACT: A report from the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health showed that in any given year 5-9 percent of children experience serious emotional disturbances. Just like adult mental illnesses, these are clinically diagnosable health conditions that are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, social, and sometimes even genetic factors.