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The Stigma Inside Us

We grow up surrounded by a cultural myth – the stereotype of the person with mental illness. Our news media and daytime TV shows portray people with mental illness as violent criminals or, at best, figures of fun. Not so long ago, I saw a realtor’s ad in a local newspaper headed “Driven Crazy by Your Housing?” that illustrated the message with a snarling face with bulging eyes, wild hair and distorted features. Community surveys reveal that people think of people with mental illness as always being unable to make any rational decisions, incapable, unpredictable and worthless.  A 1960s American survey concludes that they are viewed by the public with “fear, distrust and dislike.” In short, “all things bad.”  Since then, there hasn’t been much, if any, improvement.

This stereotype leads on to all kinds of misconceptions about mental illness. Half the people answering a public survey in Britain in the 1990s thought that setting fire to public buildings was a “very likely” consequence of mental illness. American surveys of the same period found that the majority of the public blamed mental illness on “lack of discipline,” and believed that people with mental illness were more responsible for their condition than were people with AIDS or the obese or any other stigmatized group. Worse still, people with mental illness themselves, and their family members share these misconceptions. When I was involved in a global anti-stigma project a few years ago, we conducted a survey of family members in Madrid. It showed that more than half felt that people with schizophrenia should not be allowed to study, drive a car or have children.

So, growing up in a world where everyone accepts this myth and shares these misconceptions, what would your reaction be if someone were to tell you that you suffer from mental illness? If you have an ounce of dignity, it would be, “No, not me. I’m nothing like that.” And, of course, you would be right. No-one is like that. But it may take you a lot of time and effort to get past the stereotype, see the illness for what it is, an illness, and see yourself again for the responsible and capable person you are. Your first impulse would be to say it can’t be true.

I was lucky enough to hear Pete Earley talk in Boulder recently.  He is the author of Crazy, an account of what he learned about the US mental health treatment system after his son, Mike, developed a serious mental illness. In a recent blog, he writes about trying to understand why his son didn’t want to take medication for his mental illness. One day, he asked Mike to explain to him, in writing, why this was such a struggle. Mike writes:

Denial was a strong factor in my understanding and even when evidence of my own madness would be presented, my mind would find a way to weave out of the circumstance and an obtuse reasoning would somehow form that would keep my own pride intact. Always two steps ahead of the truth, my brain would tap dance its way into a room where I was not at fault, where it was everybody else versus me, where I was some sort of prophet or special medium who was undergoing visions, not hallucinations, and I was important, not a victim.

It is very hard to understand that one’s own credibility is broken. There is a lot of personal shame one undergoes when they realize that they are no longer in line with society’s understanding of sane. It makes one doubt one’s own instincts and second guess the movements and decisions that one makes. Suddenly, the veil of confidence and ability has been lifted and one is a wreck, struggling to piece together the remnants of what are left of one’s self image.

I learn a lot from my son, Pete Earley concludes. One lesson he has taught me is that taking anti-psychotic medication is much more complicated than being told by your doctor that you have high cholesterol.

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

You can read his entire blog here: Why Won’t You Take Your Mediation 

Denial is a major consequence of the stigma of mental illness that we all carry within us, but when denial gives way to acceptance and shame, there’s a lot more trouble in store.

People who accept the label of mental illness take on a burden. They can see themselves as incapable and worthless. Out of a sense of shame they may withdraw socially from their friends, give up on their careers, academic or marriage plans and, viewing themselves as hopeless cases, become dependent on their treatment providers and others in their lives.

Consequently, the person with “insight” into his illness may do less well than expected while those who reject the label of mental illness are more likely to hold on to their ambitions and try to forge ahead with their lives.

We conducted a study a few years ago in Boulder, Colorado, that showed this to be true – that people who accept the label of mental illness and hold stigmatizing beliefs about it tend to feel  dis-empowered and worthless and don’t do as well as they might.

There are several other studies now that point to the same problem. Insight coupled with a sense of shame about the diagnosis leads to hopelessness, avoiding social contacts and poor self-esteem. Internalized stigma, it seems, undermines the possibility that insight will lead to recovery.

Mental health professionals have long been trained to help their clients develop insight and to accept their illnesses. It seems, however, that there are two other elements that are vital to recovery that are much less likely to be emphasized in training – empowerment and reducing internalized stigma.

On the road to recovery, people with mental illness need to find the information that will help them shake off the stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions that come with the label of mental illness and to access advocacy to combat discrimination. They need to be treated with the respect that will allow them to retain a sense of dignity and to be provided with opportunities for advancement that will show them that they are masters of their own destiny.