Overcoming Mental Illness Stigmas

177731657Mental illness affects many of our family members, neighbors and co-workers, yet attitudes remain negative. In the U.S. 11.4 million adults and 2 million adolescents, around 20 percent of the general population, suffer with some form of mental illness. In Canada 6.5 million live with mental illness or substance abuse. Too often people don’t search for help because they worry about being stigmatized, which many describe as more hurtful than their condition. 

Stigma is a form of prejudice. While most people would agree that sexism or racism is wrong, there is little pushback against the stigma many attach to mental illness and substance abuse. In a number of ways stigma for mental illness is akin to looking down on a person with a physical health problem.

Studies show that greater than 50 percent of those with mental illness feel embarrassed because of their problem, and a similar number believed that they had been discriminated against. One Canadian study discovered that only 30 percent of people would continue to be friends with a person who abused alcohol. Only 25 percent said they would maintain a friendship if the person abused drugs. And close to 50 percent said they believed that mental illness was a cover for bad behavior.

People tend to adopt prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes out of mistaken beliefs. For example, the belief that mental illness is incurable or that it makes individuals unfit for community involvement. Fear can drive negative attitudes about how the person will act or react. These fears may be unfounded, but they’re nonetheless powerful drivers. Another reason folks tend to stigmatize is the feeling that those with mental illness are somehow weaker than the rest of us. And while weakness should inspire compassion, it usually triggers rejection.

One of the surest ways to contradict those mistaken attitudes is to become involved with people living with mental illness. Most of the time a person’s heart will not be swayed by information, but they can be moved by relationship.

It’s also important to take a serious look at why people are excluded from community. Is it belief that they will be too much trouble? A negative influence? That they are undeserving? All people derive self-esteem and meaning from participation in community and deserve to be invited to take part.

It’s easy to assume that mental illness is a choice rather than a reaction to a unique set of circumstances. It’s much harder to embrace the reality that the human condition is complex and prone to many forms of struggle. It’s only when we decide that stigma is not an acceptable response that things will begin to turn around. But change can begin with just one person and that person could be you.

Posted on November 8th, 2014

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