Elyn Saks in The Huffington Post
Why is mental illness still so stigmatized? People who wouldn’t dream of saying a racial or ethnic slur glibly talk about nut cakes, lunatics and crazies. Perhaps they stigmatize the mentally ill because society always marginalizes people who are different. Or people may blame the person, not realizing that mental illness is a no-fault brain disease that you can’t just will away. Then again they may feel unconsciously that they are to blame. Finally, people may have an unconscious fantasy that mental illness is actually contagious — so one must stay away.
This is not just an academic exercise for me. I have struggled with schizophrenia for more than 30 years. My outcome has obviously been different than the accused gunman’s, but I still suffered stigma. Possibly, like him, I was very resistant to the idea of being hospitalized when I was first ill. How could I bring such shame on my family and myself?
Friends sometimes looked confused or scared when I told them about my illness; and I lost some friends, which was very painful.
So, I understand first hand the effect stigma can have. Stigma is out there and it makes people feel damaged, lesser. It encourages people to be in the closet when being able to get help from friends, when one is suffering, is very important. Stigma’s worst effect is that it deters people from accepting their illness and agreeing to treatment. If mentally ill people didn’t have the added burden of stigma, maybe more of them would seek treatment. And then tragedies like the one in Tucson would be less likely to happen.
How can we combat stigma? More people coming forward to put a face on mental illness is important, though one must take care when doing this. A media that puts violence committed by people with mental illness in context — most people with mental illness are not violent — would be helpful. The media should also report more positive and hopeful stories.
Elyn Saks Author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness
Posted: January 19, 2011 04:42 PM in the Huffington Post