Why Stigma Still Exists
It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all of our other organs, is
vulnerable to disease. Unfortunately, because people with mental illnesses often suffer
from symptoms which are behavioral, they are sometimes thought of differently than
people with physical ailments. Instead of receiving compassion and support, people with
mental illnesses may be greeted by unsympathetic, unfair or hostile responses.
Unfortunately, the media are responsible for many of the attitudes and misconceptions
we hold regarding people with mental illnesses. As a society we are bombarded with
images of people with mental illnesses as being homicidal madmen, women with 16
personalities, or homeless people talking to themselves.
Newspapers, in particular, often stress a history of mental illness in the backgrounds
of people who commit crimes of violence. Television news programs frequently
sensationalize crimes where persons with mental illness are involved. Comedians make
fun of people with mental illnesses, using their disabilities as a source of humor.
Furthermore, national advertisers present stigmatizing images as promotional gimmicks
to sell products.
Ironically, the media also offer the best hope for eradicating stigma because of their
power to educate and influence public opinion. Objectively, the media have a
responsibility to provide a broader perspective on people with mental illnesses.
Most of the intolerance can be attributed to the stigma that accompanies mental
illness. As a society, we often perceive people who have a mental illness as strange,
scary, even dangerous. These misconceptions frequently result in blatant
discrimination. In fact, when people with mental illnesses are asked to identify the
biggest problem they face, most say it is simply lack of acceptance.
People who suffer or have suffered from mental illness have many obstacles to overcome.
Don't at let your attitude or actions be yet another hurdle!
Did You Know?
Abraham Lincoln fought depression for many years. After overcoming his illness, he went
on to become President of the United States! Others who have conquered their mental
illness are Dick Clark, entertainer, Ted Turner, cable TV mogul, Alma Powell, wife of
Colin Powell, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, Joan Rivers, comedienne, Art Buchwald,
humorist-columnist, Dick Cavett, TV talk show host, Kitty Dukakis, wife of Michael
Dukakis, Patty Duke, actress.
The best way to dispel misconceptions and eliminate discrimination about mental illness
is to get a clear understanding of how it affects people.
What is Mental Illness?
A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking,
perception and behavior which may significantly impair the person's ability to cope
with life's ordinary demands and routines. Many mental illnesses are believed to have
biological causes, just like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Depending on the type
and severity of the mental illness, with the proper care and treatment, a person can
learn to cope, improve, or experience a full recovery.
The Five Major Categories of Mental Illness:
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. The three main types are:
phobias, panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. People who suffer from
phobias experience extreme fear or dread from a particular object or situation. Panic
disorders involve sudden, intense feelings of terror for no apparent reason and
symptoms similar to a heart attack. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder try to
cope with anxiety by repeating words or phrases or engaging in repetitive, ritualistic
behavior such as constant hand washing.
Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder which involves extreme mood
swings such as extreme sadness or elation, sleep and eating disturbances, and changes
in activity and energv levels. Suicide may be a risk with these disorders.
Schizophrenia is the most disabling and serious of the mental illnesses. Schizophrenia
is believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain that cause a variety of
symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, withdrawal, incoherent speech and
This group of brain disorders includes diseases like Alzheimer's which leads to loss of
mental functions, including memory loss and a decline of intellectual and physical
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are serious, life-threatening illnesses. Anorexia is
self-starvation while bulimia is cycles of bingeing (consuming large quantities of
food) and purging (self-inducing vomiting or abusing laxatives). Behavior may also
include excessive exercise. People with anorexia and bulimia have a preoccupation with
food and an irrational fear of being fat.
Common Misconceptions About Mental Illness
MYTH: "Mental illnesses are not real diseases
like heart disease and cancer."
FACT: While many psychiatric disorders can not
be detected through simple blood tests or biopsies, these diseases have been linked in
studies to a biological origin. Some psychotic disorders may be situational and
temporary, caused by extreme stress or life changes such as a death of a loved one or a
MYTH: "People who need psychiatric care should
be locked away in institutions."
FACT: The notion that all people with mental
illnesses should be institutionalized is a thing of the past. Today, there are a
variety of care providers, programs and medications that allow most patients to lead
productive lives within their communities.
MYTH: "A person who has had a mental illness
can never be normal."
FACT: Mental illness is often a temporary
condition. A previously well-adjusted individual may have an episode of illness lasting
weeks or months, and then may go for years, even a lifetime, without further
difficulty. To label such a recovered patient "abnormal" is both unfair and
MYTH: "Mentally ill persons are dangerous."
FACT: The vast majority of people with mental
illnesses are not violent. In the cases when violence does occur, the incidence
typically results from the same reasons as with the general public such as feeling
threatened or excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs.
MYTH: "Recovered mental patients can work
low-level jobs but aren 't suitedfor reallv important or responsible positions."
FACT: Like everyone else, people with mental
illnesses are individuals. Career potential depends on a person's particular talents,
abilities, intelligence, experience and motivation as well as his/her current state of
physical and mental health.
How You Can Help:
How You Can Combat Stigma: