The Stigma of Mental Illness: Coping—and Fighting Back

As those who work in the field of mental health know only too well, mental illness carries a stigma that adds a significant burden to the challenges already facing many clients. Unlike other medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease, mental illness is often seen as a personal weakness or a character flaw. The detrimental effects of this stigma are well understood. In his 1999 Mental Health Report, former Surgeon General David Satcher asserted that “Stigma assumes many forms, both subtle and overt. It appears as prejudice and discrimination, fear, distrust, and stereotyping. It prompts many people to avoid working, socializing, and living with people who have a mental disorder. Stigma impedes people from seeking help for fear the confidentiality of their diagnosis or treatment will be breached.”

What perpetuates the stigma? Unfortunately, it’s not just outdated social attitudes. In fact, negative images and distortions about mental illness abound in current popular media. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an advocacy group for people affected by mental illness, publishes a regular column on their website called “StigmaBusters”, which asks members to send in alerts about stereotypes they find in the media. Examples include a November 2010 episode of the popular musical comedy “Glee”, which mocked and trivialized bipolar disorder in a scene where a “crazed” Mary Todd Lincoln is shown shouting at a teapot. A recent issue of Vs., a high-end fashion magazine, features actress Eva Mendes as a patient in a psychiatric institution, writhing on a bed to keep from being restrained. A new television commercial for Burger King shows “The King” on a rampage, chased and then taken away by men in white coats. Some of the most egregious examples have appeared around Halloween. This past fall, “The Pennhurst Asylum,” a Halloween “insane asylum” attraction, opened on the grounds of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital outside Philadelphia, sparking a controversy that included protests from former residents of the facility (http://www.nami.org/).

If negative images in the media are helping to form the popular perception of mental illness, what are some ways to help clients cope with their effects and counter the stereotypes that the images perpetuate? Advocacy organizations like NAMI offer support to individuals with mental illness and their families, and participating in groups like “StigmaBusters” is one way that people can become advocates, doing their part to fight inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness. The Mayo Clinic website (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mental-health) is another excellent resource that describes steps to cope with stigma, including advice on how to seek support and educate others about mental illness.

And it’s not all bad news in the media. The Voice Awards, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recognize writers and producers of television and film who have given voice to people with mental health problems by incorporating dignified, respectful, and accurate portrayals of people with mental illness into their scripts, programs, and productions. In 2010, a Voice Award for best documentary went to actor Joe Pantoliano for his film No Kidding, Me Too!, which explores the journey of several individuals with mental illness and includes a candid account of his personal struggle with depression. Although best known for his roles in The Matrix, Memento, and the televisions series “The Sopranos,” Pantoliano is an activist, working to raise social awareness and understanding of mental health through a non-profit organization that he created to encourage members of the entertainment industry to help educate the public about mental illness. “We know this is a tough fight,” says Pantoliano. “We know years of ingrained socialization causes people to recoil or isolate anyone with the scarlet letter of mental illness…. However, we also know that by releasing the talents of those with mental illness—by giving them the opportunity to use their outstanding artistic and intellectual skills—we will vastly improve the world. And this is a cause worth supporting” (http://nkm2.org/about-us/).

In your practice, is stigma affecting your clients? How do you help clients to cope with stigma, and what resources have you found to be most useful? We want to hear from you, so post your comments and let’s start the conversation!

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One Response

  1. Hi I have Bipolar II. Stigma is a major problem. I blog about my disorder and recently talked about stigma. You may want to check it out everydaybipolar.wordpress.com

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