Stop the Stigma

Mental Illness Stigma Researchers Don’t Speak for Us

Mental illness stigma researchers may not speak for us – graphic of dialogue bubbles
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While doing some research for my upcoming book on stigma, I came across a 2004 discussion paper on Stigma and Work. It was written by Heather Stuart, a public health faculty member at Queen’s University in Canada. It quickly became clear that the author’s PhD in epidemiology didn’t prevent her from having some strange attitudes about mental illness. I was left with strong doubts as to whether she had every actually talked to someone with mental illness.

Yet her ResearchGate profile says she’s currently a “Professor and Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair.” Hmm…..

While this was one individual academic, the paper is representative of some more broadly held problematic attitudes about mental illness. I guess no one bothered to look at this discussion paper before awarding her that research chair.

Serious vs. less serious illnesses

Some people seem to believe that you can tell how unwell someone is by their diagnosis; either they have a “serious” mental illness, or the have “just depression,” “just anxiety,” and all that crap.

Here’s what Stuart had to say in her paper:

While Canadians express stigmatized views of people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia… the literature does little to examine the extent to which stigma is a consequence of other dimensions of mental health, such as less serious psychological or emotional problems like substance misuse or depression.

Oh, come on now. “Less serious psychological and emotional problems?”

The term “serious and persistent mental illness” is sometimes used in the field of mental health care. What it means sort of depends on who you’re asking. According to a paper in Frontiers In Psychiatry, it was coined in 1987 by the National Institute of Mental Health to refer to a combination of 3 D’s: diagnosis, disability, and duration. Typically it encompasses psychotic disorders or mood disorders.

Depression is a mood disorder and a serious illness. Calling it a not so serious emotional problem really just misses the boat, and as an academic, it’s not a boat there’s any reason for her to be missing.

This paper was written pre-opioid crisis, but addiction has been destroying lives for a very long time. “Junkies” and “addicts” have been written off by society for just as long. Sometimes the term substance misuse is used when the problem hasn’t reached to severity of a substance use disorder, but it’s not clear which the paper is referring to.

Keep the crazies away

It’s one thing to quote people with stigmatized attitudes about mental illness; it’s a whole other thing to put words in their mouths.

Mental hospitals disgust and horrify, and citizens actively fight to exclude treatment and residential facilities from their neighbourhoods.

There was no source cited for this, and this paper wasn’t original research; therefore, it would appear that the author has pulled the words “disgust” and “horrify” straight out of her ass. Did she choose those words to deliberately amplify the stigma she was talking about? Stigma in reality is bad enough without checking a thesaurus for words that will have the greatest impact.

We also know from the illusory truth effect that saying stupid things like that boosts familiarity and thus believability of the ideas expressed.

Not working is a fate worse than death

Sure, working is fine if you can do it. Some of us with mental illness simply can’t, though. According to Ms. Stuart, that’s it, we’re screwed, life is pretty much over.

No single activity conveys a sense of self more so than work.

To be excluded from meaningful work not only creates material deprivation; it also erodes self-confidence and results in isolation, alienation and despair.

The first statement may be her belief, but the second one speaks to how other people are affected. It was unreferenced, so she apparently pulled isolation, alienation, and despair straight out of her ass. I honestly don’t know how she fits all of this up there!

Unless the author actually talked to some of us crazy people, or read (and cited) a paper written by a researcher who talked to crazy people, then she’s making her own assumptions about how the biggest problem faced by some sad-sack crazy person is that they don’t have a job, and thereby have no sense of self. Give me a break.

But is this another attempt to amplify and sensationalize? If so, the author should probably find find a more suitable job than being an academic, and in particular an anti-stigma research chair.

This back-asswards world

It was only midway through writing this post that I discovered the anti-stigma chair business. And it makes me angry (which resulted in significant expletive use in the first draft of this post). People with these kinds of attitudes about mental illness don’t deserve to be considered “experts” (as per Bell Let’s Talk) in mental illness stigma. I am “disgusted” and “horrified,” and she can bite me. Those are my words.

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You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

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36 thoughts on “Mental Illness Stigma Researchers Don’t Speak for Us”

  1. Yeah. In ‘Merica if you don’t work you’re an absolute spurge. Fuck those people and their messages. Try living with these conditions and see how far they get personally. Certainly wouldn’t have risen to the levels of their “incompetence.”

  2. That’s pretty shocking – especially the part about mental hospitals “disgusting and horrifying” citizens.
    And well…someone who says things like “less serious emotional problems like depression” shouldn’t be considered an expert. This sounded more like the opinion of those who do not know anything about mental illnesses. It’s like when people tell me that I should be grateful that I do not have a more serious mental illness – ’cause come on, it’s “just OCD”……

    1. If only there was a may to make the “it’s just…” people live that “just” condition for a day. They’d probably be seeing a whole different tune afterwards.

      1. Yeah. It’s basically what people who are blessed with empathy do— experience a simulation of it in their own mind! People who are dismissive about anybody’s struggles are just plain unempathetic. The best we can do is be patient with them and avoid them where we can, I guess!

    2. That is horrifying!!! I actually don’t know what most people think about OCD, first-hand. I guess when my in-person social network eventually increases, I’ll come across whatever their perceptions are. But yeah, that’s annoying. I’ve had similar dismissiveness about my arthritic knees— because come on, you’re walking now! 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

      1. Well, I guess most people think that it’s a cleaning disorder and some of them will tell you that “they wish they had OCD ’cause that would make them more organized”

        Oh my….the remarks some people make about your arthritic knees are pretty rude! Do they think it only gets bad enough when someone can no longer walk or what?

      2. To pull out my best Valley girl impression, there seem to be a lot of the people of this mindset: OMG, I’m like, so OCD, I was late for work this morning, because, like, some of my bronzer got on the bathroom counter, and I had to clean it up, because yeah, like I’m so OCD and if my bathroom counter was dirty, I would, like, literally die!

  3. It’s just hurtful. Not your post, the words and topics of the ‘author’.
    It really pains me to read that I have a lesser disease, just an emotional knot and that I don’t have meaning in life because I’m not working right now.
    What chair she is sitting on, kick her ass out of it!

  4. Working is actually beneficial to me and pulled me out of the down cycle I was in back in 2001. But! That doesn’t mean it is like that for everyone. Plus I found the perfect job for me and still have it…

  5. “she apparently pulled isolation, alienation, and despair straight out of her ass. I honestly don’t know how she fits all of this up there!” couldn’t stop laughing Ashley 🙂

    But yes, I agree, she totally doesn’t have a f*cking clue!

  6. Yeah, wow. I think it’s horrible to downplay depression and anxiety. In theory, I suppose depression and anxiety could be mild, but they can also be (and often are) severe and debilitating. One episode of 48 Hours Mystery I watched once was about a young man in late high school or early college who had extreme depression and anxiety. His doctor put him on something lame like Celexa, low dose. The court case was about how his evil female friend convinced him to kill himself. Horrific. But that horrific act aside, watching the episode made me want to throttle his healthcare professional for undermedicating him and leaving him to his own devices to more-or-less “get over it and choose happiness”. Um. He needed stronger meds, and he didn’t deserve the heavy thoughts that hung on him every day. Acting like it’s “just depression and anxiety” is pejorative and idiotic. Someone with depression could have much more serious issues and struggles than someone with schizophrenia or bipolar. There’s no hierarchy of mental illness, I wouldn’t think, but if there is, it should be case by case, not mental illness by mental illness. To roll your eyes and say, “She’s just depressed,” is just unthinkable small-mindedness.

  7. Ugh, this saddens my heart. We are better than tjis and deserve better than this. I was unemployed for 5 years, couldn’t get assistance and it was extremely difficult to see a bigger brighter picture for my self worth during that time. This woman seems very out of touch with the vast majority of people, traveling only in academic circles. Sad😣

  8. Such a great post! I love how brutally honest you are i just love reading your posts!!
    This is a perfect example of why there is such stigma around having a mental health illness “Educated” people feeding their bullshit opinions to the world, it honestly makes me livid the amount of crap I read!

  9. “No single activity conveys a sense of self more so than work” is some late capitalist BS!! Also just not realistic at all for people who CAN’T work due to disability or mental illness.

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