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Published: July, 2009; Vol 6, Num 2

The Stigma of Mental Illness

By Jamie Becker

As a society, we often view mental illness with disdain, discomfort or fear. We often ridicule those who suffer from various mental health disorders. That is the stigma of mental illness – the negative attitude that many people share.

Our culture perpetuates negative views of mental illness. We use terms like “crazy,” “insane” and “psycho” as put-downs. Children learn these terms and start using them at an early age. The media do not help. Television and movies often depict people with mental health disorders as unattractive, undesirable, unproductive and sometimes scary or evil.

Stigma

  • Labeling someone with a condition
  • Stereotyping people who have that condition
  • Creating a division – a superior “us” group and a devalued “them” group
  • Discriminating against someone on the basis of their label

While most people would never make fun of someone with cancer or heart disease, many think mental health is fair game for ridicule. To some people, mental illness is not the same as physical illness. It is not a legitimate medical condition but rather, a problem caused by one’s own choices and actions. People may believe the condition is all in their head and not real. They may think that a mental health disorder means someone is weak or lazy and that they should just “get over it.” 

In reality, mental health conditions have very complex causes, often a mix of genetics, biology and life experiences – most of which are beyond one’s control. And while people may have, or seem to have, some control over how they respond in particular situations, they cannot always control how their bodies respond and what symptoms they display as a result of certain situations. For example, someone who experiences depression after the death of a close family member or friend is unlikely to be able to control this response to their loss and grief.

The negative image of mental illness needs to change. Emphasis must be on supporting and treating people, not denying their problems and limiting their access to help. Perhaps someday, we will be as accepting of those with mental health disorders as we are today of people with cancer or heart disease.

Mental health parity is one way to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness. In embracing this new framework and providing coverage, LIUNA health and welfare funds demonstrate an acceptance that mental health conditions are real and treatable.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Associate Director, Health Promotion.]