Mental Illness Stigma And Discrimination. It Is Time This Was Eradicated!

Posted: June 30, 2016

“I have anxiety disorder” is treated differently from “I have diabetes, so no sugar, please.” Why should there be this mental illness stigma?

For anyone with a mental illness ‘label’, they know only too well that they are judged with that label forever. Whether they are a functioning individual or not, is not considered. If she is singing one day, she must be manic. If he is quiet some time, oh he must be in depression!

It is as if people are not allowed to have normal moods any more, and worse is how the mental illness stigma affects you outside, at work, in relationships, how society views you.

I have a friend who never discloses at work that she has an issue or takes medication, for the fear of being judged. Or another who hides his illness from his children. All of these things are done precisely because of the constant judging, the stigma and discrimination that surround anyone with a mental illness label.

In simple terms, mental health issues can be caused by life stresses, psychosocial issues, sometimes it may be genetic and some people are more predisposed to being affected. It’s often a temporary condition and recovery is very, very possible in many cases, especially if the person affected wishes to take an active part in his or her healing.

In my case, I read extensively on the subject and embarked voluntarily upon a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) model of help, also the fact that I had been incorrectly labeled did not help! In other cases, it may be a lifelong management of a condition and there are several ways of dealing with it. But even years after recovery, now that I am a fully functioning and productive person, I am continually judged with the label I had years ago, “oh she is bipolar”, as though that is the only thing that defines me.

Discrimination at the workplace is also widespread. With many employers unwilling to take on people with mental health issues, this is one of the largest groups of any disability that is unemployed. Often people have no option but to resort to hide the fact that they have any issue, just to get work.

In many cases, it is discrimination that prevents people from getting help. “I’m not crazy”, they say, when they think that perhaps they should go see a therapist or get help. And it’s precisely the conditioning we have all had growing up, from our parents or society around, “oh, you know, that person is crazy” and talking about what they did in hushed whispers.

If we grow up thinking that to have any mental health issue is being crazy and that is the last thing we want, obviously it is hidden for as long as possible. Why can’t it be treated like a medical condition, which is what it is, and be casual? “Oh, I have diabetes, so no sugar, please” is treated much differently from “I have anxiety disorder”. Why should it be so?

In a survey of over 1700 adults in the UK, Crisp et al. (2000) found that

  • the most commonly held belief was that people with mental health problems were dangerous – especially those with schizophreniaalcoholism and drug dependence,
  • people believed that some mental health problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse were self inflicted, and
  • respondents believed that people with mental health problems were generally hard to talk to.

People held these beliefs regardless of their background, education or position in society and when questioned about whether they would employ people with mental health problems, the answer was less likely.

Stigmatization comes in many forms, distrust, avoidance, pity, gossip, etc. Mental illness stigma is also prevalent in the classroom where teachers expect sufferers to under-perform and this may not be the case!

A lot of the common beliefs about ‘mad’ people stem from media. Cinema often portrays schizophrenics in stereotypical and violent roles, which reinforces what people generally believe about people with mental illness. These go a long way in continuing to make people behave in a discriminatory way towards anyone affected.

Worse than the external stigma and discrimination, is the internal stigma. It’s a condition that often affects people’s self esteem and their own beliefs of recovery are linked to the self stigmatization. If they believe they can’t recover, all the medication and therapy in the worlds will not help. There is often increased social isolation, and this is often linked to a self belief that they will not be liked.

In the UK, there has been a huge campaign to end stigma. This is a collection of blog posts, videos, promotional events, all to do with ending stigma. A similar approach will be needed in India, one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to how it deals with those affected with mental health conditions.

Mental health issues originate in the mind. So do stigma and discrimination. Let’s work hand in hand to eradicate what we can to make recovery faster and make our society more inclusive.

To sum up: mental health illness is how the term is commonly understood and referred to. But a lot of these labels are simply wrong, people are over-diagnosed, and this causes more problems than are solved. People are people, and just as there are different colours, so do people vary… we cannot all be the same, react the same, and have the same moods. And to simply label someone without any tool for looking into their brain seems wrong. Until there are better diagnostic tools, I think the world needs more love and tolerance!

Published here earlier.

Image source: human head silhouette with a puzzle piece cut out by Shutterstock.

Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer and activist who speaks out about mental health, incarceration

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2 Comments


  1. Whether mental or physical illness, our goal driven society unfortunately has little time or empathy for anything other than goal achievement. It has made us less humane and rigidly unaccepting of weakness in any form or degree. It is also the reason we try to fight aging. This approach in itself is delusional- as all of nature must accept opposites to achieve balance – the yin and yang- positive and negative. These co-exist and create balance only when they co-exist. We need to accept and accommodate both for life to continue in its natural course. Misguided society labels illness as weakness and weakness as failure. The fact is that today all people suffer equally, (even if to different degrees) the consequences of our modern chaotic disjointed life and the contradictory decisions we are forced to make as a consequence. This is the fundamental aspect that affects our mental and physical health. Unless we fix the root cause of our fragility, we cannot hope for a more consistently, secure existence. Introspection and awareness and a huge shift of focus at the individual and social policy level is the need of the hour or else we are all indeed heading for a global catastrophe that will leave no one unscarred.

    • Jhilmil Breckenridge
      Jhilmil Breckenridge -

      Absolutely true, Taopiscean (what a cool name!) and so beautifully expressed. Gratitude.

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