Preventing the (self) stigma of mental illness

Illustration by: Skye Ali
Illustration by: Skye Ali
Illustration by Skye Ali

The stigmas surrounding Mental Illness have become an ever-increasing problem in the United States. According to the National Alliance of Mental Health in 2015, one in five adults in the U.S. (43.8 million) experiences some form of mental illness every year. The same study stated that approximately 10 million out of that 43.8 million experience mental illness to the extent of a substantial effect on day-to-day life.

These individuals not only have to deal with the symptoms of having a mental illness, but also the stigmas and stereotypes that we as a society have pinned to the issue. Unfortunately, this stigmatization is constantly perpetuated through various forms of media such as movies, television, and print. These stereotypes create a false perception of those with mental illnesses, and in turn affect how those living with mental illness perceive themselves.

The forum “Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People with Mental Illness,” held by Amy Watson and Patrick Corrigan from The University of Chicago Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation found three common stereotypes of mental illness through analyses of film and print:

1. Those with mental illness are homicidal and should be feared

2. Their worldview is child-like and should be awed

3. They have weak character because of their mental illness

The same source quotes two individual studies of 2,000 American and English citizens which determined that humans react to people with mental illness either with fear and exclusion or authoritarianism (the notion that they must be controlled because they are incapable of controlling themselves). This is often referred to as Public Stigma, or “the ways in which the general public stigmatize people with mental illness.”

There is a strong correlation between public stigma and the way in which society behaves towards these individuals. As outlined by Corrigan in his article “An Attribution Model of Public Discrimination Towards Persons with Mental Illness” stereotypes lead to prejudice and prejudice evolves into discrimination.

Segregating mentally ill individuals into institutions, avoiding interaction with them, and using coercive forms of treatment such as electroshock therapy are all examples of dangerous methods of addressing mental illness and the individuals it affects.

These preconceptions and incorrect methods of handling mental illness have a detrimental effect on the individual’s self-esteem and self-efficacy which can evolve into “self-stigma.”

Self-stigma pertains to the internalization of public stigma, including negative feelings such as shame, anger and/or despair. This may prohibit the individual from seeking professional treatment, social relationships and employment.

The scholarly article “Self-stigma and the ‘Why Try’ Effect: Impact on Life Goals and Evidence-Based Practices,” by Patrick Corrigan, Jonathan Larson and Nicholas Rüsch states that self-stigma manifests as a result of negative stereotypes held by society. In order for the individual to fall into self-stigma, they must:

1. Be aware of the stereotypes

2. Believe the stereotypes

3. Apply the belief of said stereotypes into their own personal lives

The authors refer to this as the “Why Try” model, as the individual’s hindered self-esteem and efficacy prohibits them from succeeding in terms of personal life goals, mental health treatment and employment because, “why bother trying to succeed if the investment is futile?”

This learned attitude and the shame that accompanies it can prevent those who suffer from mental illness from feeling as though they are capable of the means necessary to overcome it.

For progress to occur, the existence of these stereotypes and the root of their existence must be both recognized and understood. The stigma surrounding mental illness originates from fear, misunderstanding and a lack of education, much like any other form of prejudice.

Once this stigmatization is recognized, preventing the perpetuation of false information about those who suffer with mental illness is of vital importance.

In recent times there have been a growing number of debates over gun violence and gun control.  One prevalent facet of the debates is the notion that gun violence is a mental health issue. Proponents of gun rights erroneously state that mentally ill individuals are more likely to have violent outbursts than individuals without mental illnesses.

According to the Mental Health division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the majority of individuals suffering from mental illness are nonviolent, with only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. The division also states that mentally ill individuals are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

It is objectively wrong to continue to spread false information such as the popular link of mental illness to violence. It only serves the hurtful behemoth that self-stigma is to people with mental illness.

Society must understand that individuals with mental illness are normal people. We do not need to be afraid of them, we do not need to walk on eggshells around them, nor do they need to be sent to some One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest asylum to receive help.

We need to treat them like we would anyone else. We need to empower them. “Personal empowerment is a parallel positive phenomenon conceived as a mediator between self-stigma and behaviors related to goal attainment” (Corrigan, 2009).

Positively reinforce goal-oriented thinking. Encourage them to seek professional treatment. Individuals with mental illness are not trying to harm us, nor are they attempting to make anyone around them ‘crazy’. They are just trying to get by like everyone else.

Philip Koehncke, Contributing Columnist

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2 Comments

  1. —-The stigmas surrounding Mental Illness have become an ever-increasing problem in the United States.

    The precise opposite is true.

    We tiring of people directing that prejudice and are confronting them to end their behavior. They have dominated the conversation for too long and have caused far too much harm. We are speaking out, celebrities, and just plain people, to educate the public, just as did women when people voiced rape/stigma, and just as did African Americans confronted with similar outrageous statements.

    —-Those with mental illness are homicidal and should be feared.

    The public is far too wise to betaken in by such a statement. The statement sounds like a horror story from the 1930s. It is 2116.

    —-Their worldview is child-like and should be awed.(is that “awed” a typo?)

    We are a broad and diverse demographic earning to the millions, holding every university degree, and every professional, white, and blue collar job. I recall that same claim being aimed at African Americans. It was insulting then, it is now.

    —-They have weak character because of their mental illness.
    That claim, too, was once aimed at African Americans. It is sad to see someone would repeat it today. Surely you are not naïve enough to believe any of those statements.

    *************************************
    —-The same source quotes two individual studies of 2,000 American and English citizens which determined that humans react to people with mental illness either with fear and exclusion or authoritarianism (the notion that they must be controlled because they are incapable of controlling themselves).

    There is very real truth in the above: Reactions to the caricature, “people with a mental illness” were determined by the caricature, just as reactions to caricatures of African Americans in the movies and media caused us not to see past them.

    Harold A. Maio
    khmaio@earthlink.net

    • All of those views and stigmas stated here in this article were from scholarly peer-reviewed source material and studies that were from this current decade. I do not believe any of these stigmas personally. Your criticisms are perplexing, and are aimed at the wrong person. Read critically.

      I can send you the sources if you’d like.

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