Mental illness may be difficult to live with, but the associated stigma can be even more challenging. It’s time to let the light in to shine on those of us working hard every day to make the most of the hand that mental illness has dealt us. We all have the power to be stigma warriors. It’s time to come together to stop stigma.
What is stigma?
In the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman described stigma as something that’s not inherent in mental illness; rather, it comes from the associated social response to it. The degree of social distance from the individual has a greater impact than any direct effect of the illness.
Researcher Patrick Corrigan describes stigma as encompassing both prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory actions that can result.
In a paper published in Annual Review of Sociology, Link and Phelan described mental illness stigma as a 4-step process that is driven by differentials in power.
- Distinguishing and labelling of human difference
- Association of those differences with negative attributes that are linked to stereotypes, which often occurs automatically
- Separating “us” from “them,” thus othering the person with mental illness
- Status loss and discrimination experienced by the person with mental illness; this discrimination may be individual or structural (built into institutions like governments, schools, and employers)
Raise your voice to stop stigma
In order to stop stigma, we need to speak up. Research has shown that the most effective way to fight stigma is for those of us with mental illness to come out loud and proud. Contact with regular people with mental illness is the most effective way to bring about change in people’s stigmatized attitudes.
What Does It Mean to Be a Mental Health Advocate? talks about what you can do and what you shouldn’t be expected to do as part of being an advocate.
Want to share your mental health story? Spreading your writing wings contains links to major mental health sites where you can submit stories.
I also welcome guest posts from new mental health bloggers as part of the MH@H Emerging Blogger series. The Wounded Healers interview series showcases people with mental illness who work in helping fields.
These are just a few of the organizations doing some amazing work to stop stigma by promoting dialogue around mental health and stigma on a broader scale. On their sites, you can read the stories of others living with mental illness and get involved in their awareness initiatives.
You can also check out these sites for info and take their anti-stigma pledges, which you can share it across your social channels:
Stop stigma posts on MH@H
These posts on Mental Health @ Home focus on the issue of stigma. To see what some other advocates have to say about stigma, check out the URevolution article 22 On-Point Quotes about Mental Illness Stigma, in which I was quoted.
- Ableism: The Assumptions People Make About Ability (and Disability) – Ableism is a concept that overlaps with stigma and affects people with all forms of disabilites, including mental illness-related disability.
- NIMBYism and Mental Health Housing – Not-in-my-backyard attitudes that lead people to protest against new mental health housing developments in their neighbourhoods are just another form of stigma.
- Some Surprising Mental Illness Statistics – In a 2008 study, 55% of Canadians said they would be unlikely to marry someone with a mental illness, 46% saw mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and 27% would be afraid to be around someone who was mentally ill.
- Why is Netflix Jumping Aboard the Stigma Train? – The documentary Take Your Pills offers a very skewed look at the stimulant medications used to treat ADHD, suggesting that they’re basically the same as crystal meth and they’re mostly misused.
- Why Psychosis Scares People – This post focuses on the particularly intense levels of stigma surrounding psychosis and psychotic illnesses.
Responding to stigma
How Can We Fight Stigma Most Effectively? is based on Patrick Corrigan’s book The Stigma Effect, and takes a look at what research tells us about stigma and it can most effectively be challenged. Surprisingly, education campaigns don’t work as well as you might think, nor do pushes for language change.
Ignorance and stigma seem to be all around us, so how best to respond? Should you challenge is, or is it sometimes better to just ignore it? The posts How Do You Respond to Stigmatized Language? and Should You Challenge or Ignore Ignorance on Social Media? talk more about that. My own choice is to focus on people who are ignorant due to lack of corrective information and ignore people who are clearly ignorant by their own choosing.
Besides responding outwardly to stigma, we can also respond inwardly. How Much Do You Internalize Stigma? looks at how stigma can start to influence one’s own identity and become self-stigma.
Bell Let’s Talk Day is a major Canadian anti-stigma campaign. #BellLetsTalk – What if the Elephant in the Room Could Speak? looks at the kind of things that don’t actually get talked about as part of this kind of awareness campaign.
Stigma and employment
The post Disclosing Mental Illness at Work talks about the good, the bad, and the ugly; I’ve experienced all three since I chose to be open about my illness. My choice has always been to disclose, mostly because circumstances haven’t allowed for much choice in the matter. There are pros and cons either way, and what’s right for each individual will depend on a number of factors.
Employment and Mental Illness Discrimination — it’s illegal, but unfortunately, that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Stigma in health care
One would hope that at least the realm of health care would be stigma-free, but sadly, that’s not the case.
The history of mental health “care” is even scarier. Early Insane Asylums – Bedlam and Beyond addresses the infamous Bedlam institution in London, complete with some rather disturbing sketches of restraints. I also did a guest post on Renard’s World on the dark side of psychiatry since the late 1800s.
I’ve reviewed the book No One Cares About Crazy People, which gives a compelling account of how the system failed not only the writer’s son, but also centuries worth of people with mental illness
People with mental illness are far too likely to have our physical health concerns dismissed as being a result of the mental illness. Adventures in Stigma in the ER recounts two experiences in the emergency department in which I experienced just that.
Is There Something Wrong with Behavioural Health? In Canada, we don’t use the term behavioural health, but in the U.S., it’s often used to refer to both mental illness and substance use disorders. My question, though, is how is any of that a “behaviour” disorder? It’s my mind that’s unwell.
Borderline Personality Disorder: Are the helpers actually hurting? addresses the considerable stigma among mental health care providers when it comes to patients with BPD.
Stigma and language
Various “Rules” for Talking About Mental Illness get tossed around, telling people what they should and shouldn’t say, even when it comes to their own illness. But does that just go too far? Why shouldn’t I say I’m “suffering” from depression if that’s my experience?
What’s in a Name? Labelling and Mental Illness looks at the problematic things that others call us, but also how those of us with mental illness might refer to ourselves. The semantics of “depression”: the power of word choices also looks at the language that’s used to describe mental illness.
Stigma and Pathologizing Normal Experience talks about the documentary The Age of Anxiety, which suggests that almost everyone would meet the DSM criteria for an anxiety disorder. However, when illness language like depression and anxiety is co-opted to refer to everyday difficulties, that’s just another form of stigma through minimization.
Stigma, the law, and police
Alienation and Brutality looks at the documentary Alien Boy and the police brutality that killed a man with schizophrenia. Should People in Mental Health Crisis Be Handcuffed? was written after my encounter while working as a nurse with a local police force that, as standard practice, handcuffs anyone being taken to hospital because of a mental health crisis
Legislated Stigma tells my story of experiencing stigma as a result of health professions legislation in my province. This legislation requires hospitals to report any regulated health professional hospitalized for psychiatric reasons to the appropriate regulatory body. The nursing regulator gave me the non-choice of voluntarily giving up my practicing registered nurse license or having it taken away from me. The Health Professions Act and the Fight Against Stigma includes an email message I sent to my provincial Minister of Health speaking up against the stigma enshrined in that piece of legislation.
Stigma and violence
Sadly, there are still people who believe that mental illness increases the risk of becoming violent. This is especially apparent when politicians blame gun violence on mental illness. The reality is that people with mental illness are no more likely than anyone else to become violent, and are actually at increased risk of being victims of violence.
People blame psychiatric medications for all kinds of things. Dead If You Do, Dead if You Don’t? addresses the reality of weighing risks vs. benefits of taking medications compared to what’s portrayed in the documentary Letters from Generation Rx. Prescription for Murder was another documentary, and it blamed psychiatric medication for murder.
People do all kinds of terrible things, but that doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill, even if it seems like they “must” have a mental illness to commit such horrible acts. There’s more on this in the posts Are “Psycho Killers” Psychotic? and Should You Blame Mental Illness for Bad Behaviour?
Together we have the power to stop stigma!