Has the public grown more willing over time to talk about the experience of having and treating a mental health problem? A new study says that we have. This is encouraging, and one signal that stigma may finally be starting to lose a little of it’s hold.
Stigma is the sense of disgrace or discredit associated with having a mental illness. Stigma leads to shame and secrecy. Shame and secrecy lead to social isolation and avoidance of treatment. It’s a vicious cycle. There’s no way around it- if we want to make a significant change in how mental illness affects society, we have to open up the topic and challenge misinformation and stereotypes.
As much as I know that stigma exists, some experiences bring it in sharp focus in a way that’s unforgettable. A few years back, I was coordinating a project working with recently incarcerated men coming back to the community. One of the men, who had been coming to group for a few weeks and managing pretty well, was struggling. He was argumentative and inattentive. Finally, he brought up the fact that he had begun avoiding his psychiatric treatment after prison. Now, I can’t speak to the quality of diagnosis he had in prison, which I assume will vary. But that’s not what this was about.
He explained that his family found out he had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and that they were upset and disappointed. Although the treatment did seem to help him a lot, he said, he now felt that whatever mental health issue he had, he would work to overcome it privately. He didn’t want to be “tied to taking medicine” or “treated like I’m crazy”.
Stigma can be that powerful.
A few men in the group recommended getting another opinion, but most were pretty empathetic. Some agreed they would do the same thing. These men had felony convictions, had served time in prison, both obviously huge stigma-creating experiences that stick with you for life in our society. But they didn’t want to be labeled as having a mental health problem. Maybe the mental health diagnosis seemed like one more burden.
Before you ask “why did his family do that him?” let me remind you of the context here. Society still tends to view mental illness as weakness more than illness. Families deal with shame and discrimination right alongside their loved one. It’s important to say here that most mental illness is not connected to criminal behavior. Forms of this same family conversation have happened in all walks of life. But things may finally be starting to change.
According to the study’s researchers, mental health campaigns aimed at public education are probably driving this reduction in stigma. I’m sure those have a role, but most of us learn best from people we know. If we become educated and challenge our own beliefs about what it means to have a mental illness, we can help others to do the same.