Acknowledging the stigma of mental illness, it’s really discrimination

“The negative stereotype that shame those with mental illness and prevent them from seeking help don’t just constitute stigma — they’re discrimination. It’s a blatant, prejudicial outlook on a certain population.”

Lindsay Holmes, The Huffington Post, Sept. 27, 2016

Throughout recorded history persons with mental illness, substance abuse disorders and intellectual development disorders have been the subject of scorn, ridicule, bullying, ostracizing, torture…they have been outright discriminated against.

It is way past time that these practices be ended. I have very often written about this in the past, and offer again but one article written about it, in hope it brings about awareness and action toward these negative practices within our culture.

Working as licensed counselor and program administrator in mental health facilities for many years, one thing was ever present: the protection of the privacy of our clients and patients we served. It was most common to hear the client or patients relate their concern about their mental illness…concern about others finding out about their mental illness, and the way they were treated by society.

Stigma associated with mental illness was ever present then, and continues to be present now.

I reported a study to you last year, but one of the many studies conducted on the prejudicial and discriminatory practices toward persons with mental illness, completed by the Rand Corporation on Mental Health Stigma conducted in the State of California.

The study found that nine out of 10 patients reported discrimination based on their mental illness.

The study, based on a survey, found that only 41 percent felt others were caring and concerned toward their illness, while 81 percent believed people with mental illness experience high levels of prejudice and discrimination; nearly nine out of 10 respondents with an actual mental health problem reported discrimination based on it. As a result, the respondents also said that they “definitely or probably would hide a mental health problem from co-workers or classmates.”

Eunice Wong, the lead researcher of the study, concludes that, “these high levels of perceived stigma may discourage individuals facing a mental health challenge from getting needed support from friends and family, the workplace, school, and mental health professionals.”

Now, California currently ranks number 29 of the 50 state in provision of care for the mentally ill. It is only given a “C” grade by the National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI). Texas, by comparison, now ranks number 50 of the 50 states, and is given a “D” to “F” rating.

It is true that this ranking is based on per capita monies spent on mental health, but it serves as a reference on our attitudes toward mental health prevention efforts, research, and treatment. If the problems noted by Californians are so extreme, what does that say about our national and Texan attitudes? What does it say about the attitudes at our local level?

Our perceptions of the world around us are formed through the values and attitudes of our teachings, and those perceptions often are developed into prejudicial attitudes. Those things we do not understand may often be perceived through prejudicial lenses, which often lead to distorted thought processes.

Nowhere is this more evident than with many individuals perception of the person with mental illness. We have come an extremely long way in our country when it comes to dealing with prejudicial behavior and stereotypical thinking in regard to racial and gender related issues, but the development of a non-distorted perception of the groups and persons with mental illness has taken much, much more time; and has permeated every aspect of our society.

If you do not believe this to be so, then ask the person with a mental illness; and like the Rand survey you will be astonished by your results.

What is further significant in the Rand survey was that in spite of the results, more than 80 percent of those surveyed had “a plan for how to stay or become well and believe they can meet their personal goals.” In other words, as the researchers have stated, people with mental illness proved to be resilient; and even so there is vast room for change.

You may say, “But Dr. Jones, this seems quite perplexing to some, and it is almost a contradiction; they say that they are faced with prejudice and discrimination and at the same time have self-resiliency.” This can be answered in the summation of Wong’s study: “While California residents facing mental health challenges are finding ways to cope and maintain important aspects of well-being, they are substantially burdened by self-stigma and discrimination, which may significantly undermine recovery…our overall findings show a clear need for stigma and discrimination reduction efforts…”

In other words, prejudicial attitudes and discrimination continue to be a problem with the way we view and interact with the groups/persons with mental illness; and we need to work on that…a lot! I remember someone once saying, I do not remember whom; “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. But stigma and bias shame us all.”

I remember when individuals with Cancer, Tuberculosis, and Aids bore the brunt of prejudice and discrimination; leading to everything from teasing and jokes to ostracizing. It took a long time for people to come to terms with these diseases.

I recently discovered a quote on the internet that I would like to share with you, attributed to Elyn Saks: “No one would ever say that someone with a broken arm or broken leg is less than a whole person, but people say that or imply that all the time about people with mental illness.”

I would that we could come to terms with the disease of mental illness in the same manner; and have hope that one day we will. As we finish up the month I would that we do so in remembrance of all those with mental illness, and have the respect and empathy for them that they truly deserve, and may we all help to alleviate prejudice and the outright discriminatory practices directed at them.

Until next time, Stay Healthy my Friends.