Understanding the Stigma of Mental Illness
What is Stigma?
You have heard the word, because it is mentioned in conversation, but when you ask someone the definition of stigma, a clear answer is hard to come by. If you were asked to define stigma, what would your answer be?
The definition of stigma, according to Merriam Webster is, a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something. It can also mean a mark of shame of discredit, an identifying mark or characteristic, and can refer to a scar or identifying mark on a person’s body.
The writers at nami.org gave an even better stigma definition when they said that it is, “an attempt to label a particular group of people as less worthy of respect than others.” This statement rings true and it is often how the mentally ill are treated.
Often stereotyped and stigmatized, those among us with mental illnesses are often misunderstood by the population at large. Unless you have spent time with those who are, mentally ill it is often hard to understand their particular plight. The outcome of judgment from others, as well as from the mentally ill themselves, has a demoralizing effect on them, making their road to wellness even more difficult.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
What does stigma mean? Stigmatizing the mentally ill can lead to discrimination that is obvious and direct or it can be subtle and hard to detect. Negative remarks and name-calling is obvious, however, avoidance and judgment of others because of their mental illness is not as obvious and the scars that are left behind are hard to see. This behavior from others can lead them to judge themselves more harshly than if they were getting positive support for their illness. Mental illness stigma can be formed by the mentally ill or from those with preconceived ideas regarding mental illness.
Thus, the stigma of mental illness, while already having a demoralizing effect on those who are affected by it, get a double whammy when they are subjected to the behavior that others have toward them. This can cause them harm and prevent them from getting well and can lead to harmful effects, such as:
- Unwillingness to seek help or medical treatment
- Fear of job loss due to their personal stigma concerning mental illness
- Fear that your family, friends and co-workers will not understand
- You think that because you have a mental illness, that you are a failure
- You fear that harassment, physical violence or bullying may occur from those with stigma concerning the mentally ill
These points lead to mental health stigma, which many with mental illnesses have, as do those who could best help them, worsening their situation. Due to the above-mentioned points, they have fears that prevent them from seeking help. Family members and friends may also hold mental health assistance in a bad light, further aggravating the situation.
Stigmas held toward those with mental illness are common. Many people have a tendency to believe that the mentally ill are inherently dangerous; while the truth is that, the mentally ill are largely more harmful to themselves than to anyone else.
Mental Health Stigma
Mental health stigma is broken into two parts. Social stigma is discrimination and prejudicial attitudes toward those with mental health problems. While self-stigma or perceived stigma is the attitudes that those with mental health issues have toward themselves and their perception of discrimination toward them.
The recognition by the mentally ill of the stigma surrounding them every day is as big an obstruction to their wellness, as the illness itself. They know when they are being talked about or shunned. Many already have a negative idea about those who are mentally ill, and their words, attitudes, and body language can easily indicate their discomfort, which is easily detected. Just because someone is mentally ill, does not make them unable to function in the world around them and understand the attitudes that are directed toward them.
Finding support to help them with their illness is crucial for the mentally ill. It doesn’t need to be medical support only, the support of friends; family, co-workers and employers are as big a factor in the wellness of the mentally ill, as is medical support. Going beyond your fears and the fears of your family member or friend who is mentally ill can be rewarding for you both.
Fear drives much this misunderstanding on both sides. For the ones dealing with the mentally ill, they have the fear in the back of their mind that this could happen to them. For the mentally ill, they feel less than, because they don’t have the capacity to do the things, they were capable of prior to their illness, in some cases. Either way, the mentally ill get the short end of the stick due to stigma and a preconceived notion by many concerning those who are mentally ill.
The Fallout from Stigmatization of the Mentally Ill
Often unable to help themselves, the mentally ill become much of our homeless population. Approximately one-third of the homeless population is thought to be mentally ill. With a homeless population in excess of 600,000 people in the United States, that number represents over 200,000 mentally ill individuals homeless.
Due to their illness, they are often subjected bullying, assault, and threats. This goes for the homeless that are mentally ill, as well as for those who are treated badly due to their stigma, causing them to lose value in themselves, as well as the reaction of others toward them due to their stigma. Behaviors that stem from stigma toward the mentally ill can put them in a cycle of abuse if help is not sought for both the individual who suffers from mental illness, and for those around them who can aid in their maintenance of their illness.
Help Break the Cycle
The difficult thing about mental illness is that it is not always evident and can be mistaken for other illnesses. Those who suffer from the illness are often hesitant to seek help. Even opening up to someone that they love can be difficult, because the loss of control of themselves can leave them feeling as if they are a failure because they cannot Sally forth, as they have always done in the past.
Getting involved in the community with one of the many non-profits that help the mentally ill can give you a better understanding of the issues facing these individuals. If you have family members or friends who you are concerned about, let them know that you are there for them and understand their fears. Working together will help everyone dealing with mental illness overcome the stigma’s and stereotypes that would hold them back for a healthy life.
Working Toward a Better Understanding
Mental illness has no age, gender, race or geographical monopoly on which it inflicts its difficulties. It is found in society from the least to the greatest, in terms of financial ability. It is not a respecter of people. Understanding those around you, whether you are mentally ill or associated with those who are, is the beginning of their wellness, as well as nurturing a more complete relationship between you and them.
Your relationship due to their illness may change the way that you relate to each other. Don’t think that you have lost something, nor have they, what you develop with each other now, due to the illness could be the best relationship that you and a loved one, friend or workmate have ever had if you learn to work your way through it together.
Recognizing mental illness and dealing with it early can lead to a better life. Be the one that offers a helping hand to the mentally ill, not one who makes their disability harder to bear. If you need help, seek it. Put your fears aside and do it for yourself and the people you love.