At this juncture, it is relevant to highlight the ways in which a mental disorder differs from a physical one and hence making it susceptible to ridicule. Firstly, the very term “mental” implies that the disorder is somehow out of the ordinary. Secondly, there is a widespread misconception that somehow mental illnesses are brought about by the victims themselves. Such remarks as “just snap out of it”, “you attitude is pessimistic”, “it’s all because of your whacky imagination”, etc. are uttered quite commonly, but they remain insensitive and rude nevertheless. These remarks from the social circle can damage the already low self-esteem of the suffering individual pushing him/her into a never ending cycle of shame, guilt and despair. Some insensitive people also attribute the illness to the laziness or moral cowardice of the afflicted individual, which again is totally wrong and adds to this despicable phenomenon of stigma (Kelly, 2007).
There are many harmful effects associated with stigma. For example, the following is a list of the common psychological distortions that the patient experiences as a result of the stigma. Some of the following have more painful consequences for the patient than what the stigma can do per se:
- Trying to pretend nothing is wrong
- Refusal to seek treatment
- Rejection by family and friends
- Work problems or discrimination
- Difficulty finding housing
- Being subjected to physical violence or harassment
- Inadequate health insurance coverage of mental illnesses
But of late things are looking up for patients with mental disorders. For example, there is a small but perceptible change in the public consciousness about their understanding of mental disorders. This is basically due to the awareness efforts taken by philanthropic and pharmaceutical corporations. Many celebrities and public figures have also freely disclosed their struggles with their mental conditions, which has contributed to lessening the shame associated with such mental conditions. With more research and more advanced methods of treating these illnesses, the situation can become much better for the mentally disordered. Also, on part of the patients themselves, having the courage to openly deal with their plight can go a long way in reducing stigma (Jamison, 2006).
But patients with mental disorders can help themselves cope with their stigmatizing experiences by adopting a few cognitive behavioral techniques. They can do this on their own or with the help of a psychologist. Also, the patient has to make discerning choices as to how and whom to disclose their problems with. For instance, some may be uncomfortable talking about their problem to anyone at all. But ideally, a balanced approach to sharing the struggles will have a therapeutic effect on the patient. This can be achieved by involving their close friends and confidants or being part of a support group. In the latter case, the patient will have the added advantage of gaining new perspective on the illness through the experience of other patients. By also pushing for more awareness within the close social network and by politely reminding those who pass hurtful comments and jokes, the magnitude of stigmatizing can be effectively curbed. The following are a list of things that the patient can proactively implement in order to successfully negate the negative effects of stigma. Getting proper psychological counseling is paramount in this regard. Surrounding oneself with understanding and supportive people will also help. Being assertive but polite when confronted with disparaging remarks is another useful tip in nipping stigma at its bud. On a political level, joining an advocacy group to bring about legislative change will help lay the foundation for more special legal accommodations in the future. But most important of all, the individual struggling with a mental illness should never compare him / her with others, which can only bring down the self-esteem. To the contrary, he/she should accept himself/herself as they are and try to function as an individual within their own limitations (Schulze, 2003).