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The stigma of mental health

When Shauna returned to work after being hospitalized for depression, she was hesitant to tell her boss why she’d been off for two weeks as she worked on her recovery. But it was awkward to make up a story, so she told him the truth.

Within a month, her responsibilities had been reduced and she was taken off a project team she’d worked hard to be a part of. Coworkers treated her as though she was less capable than before. Many avoided her.

Shauna was a victim of stigma.

What is stigma?
“There are four types of stigma,” says Jennifer Hill, NAMI Denver volunteer and Outreach Specialist, Behavioral Healthcare Inc., Englewood, Colorado: “labeling, stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.”

These practices include beliefs and expectations that people living with mental illness are fundamentally different, that they have lower status. Examples are characterizations of people with mental illness as less competent, even deranged or dangerous. Discrimination is unequal treatment of specific groups of people, such as limiting opportunities for housing or jobs.

In a 1999 survey of 1300 individuals living with mental illness, 70 percent said that, because of stigma, they sometimes, often or very often avoided disclosing their mental illness. Thirty-two of those surveyed had experienced job discrimination. One in five had been turned down as volunteers. In an in-depth interview of 100 of the survey’s participants:

  • More than a third said they had experienced stigma from coworkers, colleagues or classmates.
  • 31 percent increased their avoidance of social contact.
  • More than half said it reduced their self esteem.
  • 29 percent said they became stronger because of stigma.

In the years since this survey, public awareness and attitudes about mental illness may have improved somewhat, but not significantly, according to mental health advocacy organizations.

Why does stigma persist? 
Unfortunately, the media is responsible for many of the misconceptions that persist about people with mental disorders, according to a publication of Mental Health America Colorado.

“Newspapers, in particular, often stress a history of mental disorder in the backgrounds of people who commit crimes of violence. Television news programs frequently sensationalize crimes where persons with mental disorders are involved. Comedians make fun of people with mental disorders.”

Phrases such as, “She’s so bipolar” to describe someone the speaker disagrees with are becoming common in conversation and Twitter posts.

How can we challenge stigma?
Watch your language. DON’T use phrases like “He’s a lunatic” or “She’s crazy.”  DO use respectful language such as: “…a person who has a psychiatric disability.”  If someone expresses a stigmatizing attitude, bring it to their attention.

Let your voice be heard. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) works through its StigmaBuster program, to fight negative media portrayal of people with mental illness. For example, it recently used its significant clout to protest a Burger King commercial that portrayed men in white coats chasing its “crazy king” wearing a hospital gown. Find out how you can be involved.

Stand tall. “The keys to living successfully in the face of stigma,” says Hill, “are to be persistent and assertive. If you are a person living with mental illness, teach others how to treat you, be resilient, choose not to internalize it. Remember that you are a parent, a friend, a volunteer, an artist or an animal lover. You have talents and dreams. You are not your illness; you are a person who is living with an illness.

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