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.
For more from Heather Stuart, check out my follow-up post The Ship of Fools and Other Odd Mental Illness Ideas.
There’s more on mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.