Social Stigma and Mental Illness

A mental illness is a disorder that causes mild to severe abnormalities in thinking, cognitive functions and behavior patterns of the affected people.  If these disturbances are too severe, they may impair a person’s ability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.

Mental illnesses are still stigmatized in contemporary society, in spite of a general increase in awareness about such diseases as depression and anxiety.  Even the very term “mental illness” has a negative connotation to it as opposed to “physical illnesses”.  The widespread perception is that mental illnesses are somehow “worse” and patients afflicted with it “unpredictable” and “dangerous”.  While such labels are applicable to a small fraction of patients, a majority of them are “normal” individuals by common standards.  Their disorders and disturbances only affect their concentration, cognition and efficiency.  Yet, they get ostracized for their condition.  The mainstream media plays a significant role in spreading such misconceptions among the citizenry.  As a matter of statistic, crime rates among the mentally disturbed are quite similar to that of the control group (Angermeyer, 2004).  Yet, the media portrays them as people prone to violent and antisocial behavior.  For example,

“Mental illness also has not received the sensitive media coverage that other illnesses have been given. We are surrounded by stereotypes, popular movies talk about killers who are “psychos” and news coverage of mental illness only when it related to violence. We also often hear the causal use of terms like “lunatic” or “crazy,” along with jokes about the mentally ill. These representations and the use of discriminatory language distort the public’s view and reinforce inaccuracies about mental illness.” (Schulze, 2003)

It is not an even keel with all types of afflictions.  Some of them like schizophrenia are subject to more ridicule and stigma than say depression.  People affected with this condition are portrayed as “psychos”, “whackos”, “nut balls”, etc.  While disorders like depression don’t attract such treatment as a result of widespread awareness about anti-depressants within the mainstream media (Kelly, 2007).

There are other negative consequences to such stigma.  For one thing, many people shy away from getting proper treatment for their conditions on fear of being ridiculed and disparaged.  They also develop unreasonable fears of abandonment by their family and friends once the illness comes to light (Kelly, 2007).

When someone is a little different than the normal stereotype, they immediately become prone to stigmatization. There are a whole range of negative stereotypes that is not approved of or respected in society.  For example, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnic accents, etc. are all subject to ridicule and disregard.  This discrimination becomes more hostile and takes unreasonable proportions when it comes to mental illnesses.  People who are at the receiving end of such discrimination lose their sense of objectivity and start doing things to make them acceptable.  Their personal beliefs and values take a backseat as “people pleasing” becomes their primary cause.  In some conservative social settings many legends, myths and falsehoods are passed on from one generation to the other through study of classical texts, etc.  Although the people studying them understand the dubiousness of the negative conceptions, they still fall victim to indoctrination.  So, at a subconscious level they still hold prejudices and hostilities toward stereotypes that are deemed unacceptable in civil societies.  Due to inaccuracies and misunderstandings, people have been led to believe that an individual with a mental illness has a weak character or is inevitably dangerous (Jamison, 2006). For example,

“Some people also believe that those with mental illness are less competent, unable to work, should be institutionalized or will never get better.  As a result of such stigma, mental illnesses remain the butt of jokes in popular culture. Negative portrayals of people with mental illnesses fuel fear and mistrust and reinforce distorted perceptions, leading to even more stigma.” (Murray, 2006)

Since mental illnesses are “invisible”, in that their symptoms are psychological as opposed to physiological, makes them all the more suspicious and mysterious.  No wonder then that some corners of the world still maintain traditions and practices that deal with mental illnesses through mysticism and black magic (Jamison, 2006).

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