Mental Health: understanding facets of stigma

Many people with serious mental illness face a double challenge.  On the one hand, they have to cope with the disease’s debilitating symptoms, which often become worse with time if left untreated. On the other hand, they fall victim to discrimination and stereotyping that result from the disease’s misconception. As a result of both, people living with mental illness are deprived of opportunities that define an ideal life. The people living with mental illnesses are alienated from society, and in some cases, are forced to fend for themselves, which further aggravates their already deteriorating condition.

Although there have been advancements in psychiatry and psychology, mental illness stigma remains and is actively spreading. There are lots of factors that can be attributed to the perpetuation of stigma. People with mental illness have a long history of being stigmatized in societies all around the world. Mental illness has been associated with various social taboos, from being misunderstood as demonic possession, to being justified as divine retribution from spiritual beings.

Media portrayals of mental illness often veer towards either stigmatization or trivialization. Various artists have been reprimanded for their inaccurate and insensitive depictions of characters affected by mental illness in their work of fiction. Many writers have gained notoriety over the years for their false and misleading portrayals of different mental diseases in films and books.  In many movies, characters affected by mental illness are portrayed as homicidal maniacs who need to be feared as these “psychopaths” are shown as nothing more than vicious murderers. The makers of these films give no satisfactory explanation for their hostile behavior, or any underlying cause behind the apparent antisocial personality of these characters is never fully explored. Some film directors deliberately portray people affected with mental illness as weak characters in their films and give a false message to the audience that people affected with mental illness are themselves to be blamed, as they lack the willpower and strength required to overcome their predicament.

The treatment of mental illness has obviously improved significantly in modern times. However, the fields of psychology and psychiatry are relatively in their preliminary stages and has a long way to go. Stigma has arisen out of irrational fear and inadequate knowledge of the disease. It has persisted even in the face of contrasting evidence. While the public acknowledges and understands the genetic or medical nature of the condition and the need for treatment, they still refuse to associate themselves with any person deemed mentally ill.  Although stigmatizing attitudes are clearly not limited to mental illness, the public seems to be exceedingly more contemptuous of people with psychiatric disabilities than people with physical conditions.

The stigma associated with mental illness falls into two categories: social stigma, which involves the negative attitude that others harbor about people living with mental illness. And self-perceived stigma, which is an internalized stigma that the person often turns against themselves. It has been noted that perceived stigma leads to a deeply internalized shame about having a mental illness. It has also been found in studies that self- perceived stigma often leads to poor treatment outcomes.

The negative impact that stigma has on people with mental illness and their families is devastating. The patients suffering from the disease are often subjected to ridicule, harassment, bullying, and even violence. People with mental illness suffer from intense discrimination in finding employment and even housing. As a result of stigma, people refuse to take help and seek treatment, which makes the prognosis of the disease even worse.

While the public acknowledges and understands the genetic or medical nature of the condition and the need for treatment, they still refuse to associate themselves with any person deemed mentally ill. 

There are several ways to manage the stigma imposed by others. It is incredibly vital for any person who has a mental illness to seek treatment as soon as possible, heedless of naysayers. Medical intervention offers relief by reducing the symptoms of the disease, which interferes with work and personal life. Many people diagnosed with mental illness often achieve strength and hope through participating in individual or group treatment.

Psychotherapy is often recommended for those with behavioral problems. Psychotherapy is usually prescribed alone or in combination with other medications. The therapist identifies and alleviates the symptoms which may be triggering the illness. The therapist also works through a wide range of problems such as difficulty in coping with life, medical condition, or the death of a loved one, and specific disorders such as depression and anxiety. Psychotherapy allows a person to function better and can increase well being and healing.

Self-Stigma is one of the biggest challenges that need to be overcome by the people living with the disease. The people living with mental illness who internalize stigma experience a significant loss of self-confidence and self-respect and often wallow over trivial matters, and gradually develop a negative frame of mind.

Programs have been developed to reduce insecurity inducing effects of self-stigma.  Psycho educational approaches are becoming more common and useful as a means to treat self-stigma, in which participants are taught facts that dispute stereotypes of mental illness.

The educational experience is very beneficial and further enhanced by the participants sharing their own personal experiences of discrimination faced during the course of their illness.

There are many strategies that can help diminish the effects of stigma and allow the people affected with mental illness regain their confidence and self-respect. Protest is not a very effective strategy and does not yield good results, while demonstration attempts to reduce negative attitudes about mental illness but fails to promote complementary views that are supported by facts. Education provides reliable information so that the public can make an accurate and unbiased opinion about mental illness. When stigmatized individuals themselves come into contact with mentally ill persons and witness them succeeding in work and life, stigma is further reduced.

A wide array of medical treatments is being researched for different various mental illnesses. There is ample research suggesting that chemicals like psilocybin, MDMA, DMT and cannabidiol when used in a limited amount and under the supervision of a health professional.

Scientists are learning more about the cause of various mental illnesses, and effective medicines are being approved by psychiatrists. Hospital stays are getting shorter, and the duration of these stays are less frequent than they once were. It is hoped that stigma will decrease, as medical science makes more progress in finding an effective treatment.

(Author has recently completed Bachelor’s degree in Social Work.)