You’ve heard all the hurtful words before — words like “psycho,” “wacko,” and “schizo.”
Then there are the offhand descriptions of someone’s behavior as “OCD” or “having a panic attack.”
Advertisements regularly use mental illness symptoms to show how miserable life is without their products. And you’ve seen the jokes about mental health on television referring to “loony bins” and characters in straitjackets.
Mental health conditions are the butt of jokes in popular culture. While there are taboos against making discriminatory remarks about many groups of people, it seems that it’s open season on those with mental illnesses.
Negative portrayals of people with mental illnesses fuel fear and mistrust and reinforce distorted perceptions. They marginalize the mentally ill, making them feel that they are not useful members of society.
But if you or a loved one has a mental illness or has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you know that these words and gimmicks and attitudes aren’t just harmless fun. They perpetuate the stigma attached to mental health conditions. Stigma and scapegoating makes you angry and upset, and it causes the public to misunderstand mental illnesses.
Though the stigma and scapegoating of a mental health disorder can be painful and shaming, you can find ways to cope with it and even combat it.
Open discussion can help erase stigma and scapegoating
Fortunately, things are slowly beginning to change. There’s a growing public understanding of mental illnesses and the biological basis that many of them have. It’s been helped along by the onslaught of advertising for antidepressant, Bipolar and Anxiety medications in the media. These have made these disorders more mainstream and more acceptable. As the causes of mental illnesses and better treatments for them are discovered, stigma and scapegoating may fade even more.
In addition, many celebrities and public figures have openly discussed their experiences with a mental health condition. This helps bring the topic into the public’s eye and increase acceptance.
For example, Oprah Winfrey, Johnny Depp, John Madden, Howard Stern, and Naomi Campbell have all discussed their Anxiety Disorders in public. (This is a short list. See Celebrities with Anxiety Disorder for a much more.)
Coping with stigma and scapegoating
Here are some things you can do to cope with and help end stigma and scapegoating:
- Confide in people you trust. If you have a mental illness, you can decide who to tell, if anyone. If you confide in people you trust, you may find much-needed compassion, support and acceptance. You don’t have to go it alone!
- Get appropriate treatment. Don’t let the fear of being stigmatized or scapegoated prevent you from seeking treatment for your illness. For many, a specific diagnosis provides relief because it lifts the burden of keeping silent. It also shows that you are not alone — that many others share your same illness and issues.
- Surround yourself with supportive people. Because stigma can lead to social isolation, it’s important to stay in touch with family and friends who are understanding. Isolation can make you feel even worse.
- Make your expectations known. People may not know how to support you, even if they want to help. Offer specific suggestions and remind people of appropriate language and attitudes.
- Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of saying “I’m PTSD,” say “I have TPSD.” Instead of calling yourself “OCD,” call yourself “a person with OCD.” Don’t say you “are depressed.” Say you “have depression.”
- Share your own experiences. Speaking with others about your mental illness can give you comfort and help them understand more about the mental health issues. Speaking at events can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and also educate the public about mental illness. Until you gain confidence, you may want to start at small events, such as talks at a support group or church community.
- Actively combat stigma and scapegoating. You may only be comfortable pushing for more awareness within a close circle of family and friends by gently reminding them about the harm in jokes and stereotypes. Or if you’re more comfortable tackling bigger challenges and facing bigger risks, you may decide you can make your cause more public.
- Monitor the media. If you spot stigmatizing stories, comic strips, movies, television shows or even greeting cards, write letters of protest that identify the problem and offer solutions.
- Join an advocacy group. More information is found below.
Don’t let stigma and scapegoating create self-doubt and shame
It may be difficult to feel good about yourself when you hear insensitive comments or see crude advertising gimmicks. Remember that you have a medical condition that’s not your fault and that effective treatments are available. Try not to feel shamed, embarrassed or humiliated if someone knowingly or unknowingly makes light of or pokes fun at your illness. Therapy may help you gain self-esteem and put less stock into what others think of you.
What you can do to combat stigma and scapegoating in your community and nationwide
You can work to combat the injustices of stigma and scapegoating by recognizing them when they occur and working to correct them through responsible social pressure. A primary way to achieve this goal is to support the activities of groups that exist to combat mental health stigma.
- The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is a grassroots, self-help and family advocacy organization solely dedicated to improving the lives of people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder.
- The National Mental Health Association (NMHA) strives to improve attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill; to improve services for the mentally ill; to work for the prevention of mental illness and promote mental health. They are active in legislative efforts to get insurance companies to make equitable payments for mental health services.
The tide is slowly turning. Some mental illnesses, such as depression, have already come a long way toward public understanding and acceptance. It is up to each of us to combat the stigma and scapegoating whenever and wherever it happens.
Have you experienced the stigma and scapegoating of mental illness? How have you dealt with it?
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This is the second of a two-part series. The first is Scapegoating and the Stigma of Mental Illness Part 1
Resources used in this article:
Anxiety Secrets. (2006). Celebrities with Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved July 15, 2008 from Anxiety Secrets Web site: http://www.anxietysecrets.com/celebrities.htm
Dombeck, Mark. (2000, May). Scapegoating and Mental Illness Stigma. Retrieved June 27, 2008 from MentalHelp.net Web site: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=686&cn=144
Mayo Clinic. (2007, December 8). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Retrieved June 27, 2008 from Mayo Clinic Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mental-health/MH00076
Psych Central. (2008, May 9). Mental Illness Stigma Alive and Well in U.K. Retrieved July 1, 2008 from Psych Central Web site: http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/05/09/mental-illness-stigma-alive-and-well-in-uk/2260.html