Stigma – a social evil jeopardizing lives of the mentally ill

Like any other physical problem, a mental illness can affect anyone. However, the social stigma attached to it can be invariably maligning and have a deep impact on the patient’s life. For example, if an illness has no clear physical cause, then it is deemed to be “all in our mind” and therefore we must be “making it up.”

Many people with serious mental illnesses have to go through dire circumstances. On the one hand they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from being mentally ill, on the other hand they face challenges of stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illnesses. Concurrent occurrence of both factors result in a miserable life devoid of opportunities, jobs, good housing, healthcare, friends and a good life.

Although researches have gone far to understand the impact of various diseases, it has only recently begun to explain stigma attached to it. Much work still needs to be done to fully understand the extent and impacts of prejudice against people with mental illness.

Over 700 people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in 27 different countries were interviewed as part of International Study of Discrimination and Stigma Outcomes (INDIGO), carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry (now Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience), King’s College London, in collaboration with the World Psychiatric Association’s (WPA) Global Programme Against Stigma and Discrimination because of Schizophrenia; 72 percent of those interviewed said they felt the need to conceal their diagnosis, 64 percent said the anticipation of discrimination stopped them from applying for work, training or education programs, and 55 percent said it stopped them looking for a close relationship. The study illustrates that prejudice and discrimination against people with a diagnosis of mental illness are common all over the world.

Stigma and its impact on people

According to a research paper, “Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness,” written by researchers from University of Chicago Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research and published in the World Psychiatry journal in February 2002, highlights the impact of stigma to be twofold – public stigma and self-stigma.

Public stigma is the reaction of the general population to an individual suffering from some mental illness, while self-stigma is the prejudice which people with mental illness turn themselves against. Both public and self-stigma may be understood in terms of three components – stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

  • Stereotypes: Negative belief about a group/self (e.g., dangerousness, incompetence, character weakness)
  • Prejudice: Agreement with belief and/or negative emotional reaction (e.g., anger, fear, low self-esteem)
  • Discrimination: Behavior response to prejudice (e.g., avoidance, withhold employment and housing opportunities by owner, failure to pursue any work)

Studies suggest that the majority of citizens in the United States have stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness. In fact, stigmatizing views about mental illness are not limited to the uneducated; well-informed members of the general public also have stereotypical prejudices about mental illness.

In terms of general perceptions, society is considerate about physical disabilities, but it is believed that people with mental illnesses are in control of their disabilities and are responsible for causing them. In many situations, people do not sympathize persons with mental illness, and instead react to their psychiatric disability with anger and frustration and also opine that help is not deserved.

There can be three kinds of preconceptions regarding people suffering from mental illnesses:

  • Fear and exclusion: Persons with severe mental illness should be feared and, therefore, be kept out of most communities.
  • Authoritarianism: Persons with severe mental illnesses are irresponsible, so life decisions should be made by others.
  • Benevolence: Persons with severe mental illness are childlike and need to be cared for.

Such social avoidance and treatment by the society or community at large, can aggravate the condition of self-stigma among various individuals, thus making them feel that they are less valued than “normal” individuals. Low self-esteem, dip in their confidence levels, self inflicted solitary confinements, social indifference, etc. will then be a regular norm for any person who is exposed to social stigma.

Reducing stigma

Personal contact with people with mental health problems is the most effective way to reduce discrimination and prejudice. In fact, anti-stigma interventions like social campaigns and educational awareness in schools and colleges can lessen negative perceptions. Statistics suggests that one in five Americans live with a mental health condition and each of them has his own story which talks about his journey and feelings more than what others say. It is time to be stigma free and respect the people suffering from mental illnesses.

If someone is suffering from a mental illness, treating him or her with kindness will help come out of the difficult situation. You can seek help from our experts at the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline to inquire about best medical facilities around you. Call at 855-653-8178 today for more information or chat online.