Combating the Stigma of Mental Illness

If you or your loved one is the unfortunate victim of a mental illness, you know just how hurtful labels such as “schizo,” or, “psycho,” can be. As Natalie Constanza-Chavez of the Denver Post puts it, “Mental illness is still one of the last bastions of human suffering that we are comfortable making fun of, discounting, and judging.”

We hear it on the street and are bombarded by it via TV and the movies. Psychiatric hospitals are called lunatic asylums, crazy houses, padded cells, rubber rooms, snake pits, mad houses, loony bins, cuckoo’s nests, psycho wards, booby hatches, nut houses, and funny farms, while the sufferers within get called crazy, cuckoo, batty, or whacko.

Where is Our Compassion?

Where is our compassion and understanding of what is, after all, an illness? We are so accepting of same sex relationships, but the milk of human kindness seems to dry up at the mention of a loved one with a mental illness. If such stigma is harming you or someone you care about, it’s time to look at stigma and come to a better understanding of what it is, so that you can fight its evil effects.

Stigma has four parts:

Labeling someone with a mental condition

Stereotyping those with this condition

Societal division resulting in a loss of status: the superior “us” versus the inferior “them”

Discrimination on the basis of the created label

Some Labels are Good

Some labels are good. It’s good to have a diagnosis and this is a kind of label that is useful and can give reassurance as it steers you in the right direction for appropriate treatment. It’s easy to see that a label doesn’t have to result in a stigma. Think of breast cancer, once a secret shame. When people began to speak in an open manner of breast cancer and even campaign for this cause, it lost the embarrassment factor with which it was associated in the past. Talking about mental illnesses in a frank and respectful manner is the best way for these diseases, too, to gain a measure of positive public regard.

Mental illness has gained stigma due to the seeming division between mind and body illnesses. If one has cancer, for example, this is seen as no fault of the patient. Somehow, society views a mental illness as a type of voluntary disease involving choice or a lack of desire to exert control over emotions and desires. The fact is that mental illnesses are a combination of genetics, personal history, and biology; factors that are outside the sufferer’s control, just as someone with a cold has no control over the factors that led to his physical ailment.

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