Given the current discussions in the media about mental health, this week seemed like a good week to talk about stigmas.
What is a stigma?
A stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. In this situation, it’s associated with being mentally ill. Breaking that down even further, there are two types of stigmas: self-stigma and social stigma. Self stigmas are exactly what they sound like, judgments of yourself based on perceived discrimination and can lead to feelings of shame and lack of compliance in treatments. Social stigmas, which are what I want to focus on today, are prejudices directed at those with a mental health diagnosis.
How are stigmas perpetuated?
The simple answer is the media. We live in a time period where media, of the social, entertainment and news varieties, paint our feelings and judgments toward several types of people and situations. The most common stigma that is associated with mental health courtesy of media portrayals: everyone with a mental illness is inherently dangerous. In fact, a survey done in the UK of 1700 adults found that most people believe those with a mental illness dangerous. They also found that some disorders, such as eating disorders, were considered to be self-inflicted and that those with mental illnesses were not easy to talk to.^ This idea that anyone with a mental illness is dangerous is especially present in the US, where mass violence occurs on a regular basis and the conversation always somehow leads back to the shooter being mentally ill. Of course, this isn’t accurate at all in the vast majority of cases. In fact, a 2015 study found that less than 3% to 5% of crimes in the US are linked to those with mental illnesses. According to the book “Gun Violence and Mental Illness,” less than 1% of mass shootings are done by people with serious mental illnesses.* So why is it that every time a tragedy like this happens, fingers are pointed at the mental health community?
Discussing Mental Illnesses
The reason for the finger-pointing circles back to how mental illnesses are portrayed in the media. If you look at the news lately, you’ll hear a lot of “he was mentally ill that’s why he shot up the store.” Movies and television like to use mental illnesses as a plot point, such as Split using Dissociative Identity Disorder and that Will and Grace episode where Grace pretends to have Borderline Personality Disorder and everyone becomes afraid of her. Not to mention all of the horror movies that use someone’s mental illness as the reason why they’re killing everyone (looking at you Psycho).
The problem with this is that people who have no experience with mental illness start to believe that those who are mentally ill are all dangerous and evil. This leads to increased isolation and depression in individuals who are diagnosed and have shared this because people automatically assume the worst. Not to mention the gross overgeneralization of everyone in the media that happens to have a mental health issue. The idea that everyone with depression is suicidal, everyone with schizophrenia has visual hallucinations or that people with Borderline Personality Disorder are “insane” and should be avoided at all costs.~ We’re all just normal people, but to some, we are just our diagnoses.
How can we fight the stigma?
verywellmind gives a great list of ways to counteract the stigma of mental health:
- Analyze mass-media production procedures to better understand the current practices, needs, values, and economic realities of screenwriters, producers, and journalists. For instance, understanding the balance between being newsworthy or emotionally arousing and verifiable.
- Present mental illness only when relevant to the story.
- Prefer non-individualized descriptions of mental illness and instead focus on the societal aspects.
- Include expert input from psychiatrists during production.
- Implement a mental health short course when training journalists.
- Use mental-health terminology with precision, fairness, and expertise. ~
In addition to the above-listed ideas, you can also write to your news station and tell them why it’s so important that they avoid stigmatizing language when reporting about mental illness. And also maybe stop automatically assuming everyone who shoots people is mentally ill, that would be nice too. Also, try to be more mindful of your word choices when speaking to friends, family, and strangers. Avoid saying things like “omg the weather is so bipolar” and “he’s such a psycho”, and refer to those with mental health issues as a “person with mental illness.” `Representation matters and those of us with mental illnesses would appreciate not being lumped in with mass murderers and manipulative serial killers every single day of our lives, or have our disorders be the butt of every joke.