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. An estate agent’s ad in a local newspaper asks “Driven Crazy by Your Housing?” and illustrates the message with a snarling face with bulging eyes, wild hair and distorted features. Community surveys reveal that the public thinks of people with mental illness as always being unable to make any rational decisions, incapable, unpredictable and worthless. A well-known 1960s American survey conducted by Nunally concludes that they are viewed by the public with “fear, distrust and dislike.” In short, “all things bad.” Subsequent research has shown little or no 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 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. A survey of family members in Madrid revealed 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.
In fact, the people who accept a diagnosis of mental illness tend to be those who have low self-esteem. Those who feel really good about themselves reject the label and, oftentimes, treatment. But the people who accept the label of mental illness take on a burden. They are likely to see themselves as incapable and worthless. Out of a sense of shame they may withdraw socially from their friends. They may give up on their career, academic or marriage plans and, seeing themselves as hopeless cases, they may 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.