If you want to become an expert in mental health you need to be ready to hear a lot of difficult things. People with mental illness have often gone through some trauma in their life that they haven’t processed. Offering support to these people in a way that is effective and conducive to their recovery is a special blend of empathic ability and scientific knowledge.
However, although the conversation around mental health and the ill-judgement surrounding it has improved in recent years, there is still a very present and pervasive stigma in society. Those who suffer from varying mental conditions are met with distrust, misunderstanding, and patronisation at best – outright hostility at worst.
We have to ask ourselves as a society, why are these attitudes so prevalent?
Stigma, Shame, and Mental Illness
Stigma is a feeling or mark of shame imposed on an individual either socially or autonomously. It is the scarlet letter that people brand others with after imposing judgement. While this may be somewhat expected for some reasons, the unfortunate truth is that many times people that don’t deserve this judgement are victims of stigma.
One such community is those suffering from mental illness. Famously one of the most difficult to understand areas of science is also correlated with one of the most common stigmas in our society.
How we got here is somewhat of a story of being stuck. In the earliest days of recognised mental illness, the various disorders that people suffered from were attributed to the possession of the victim by an evil or malevolent spirit. This shows that from ancient times, people with a mind that didn’t operate in a way that was deemed “acceptable” were regarded as morally and/or spiritually corrupt, and therefore deserving of punishment.
As Christianity took over as one of the world’s most dominant religions, the focus shifted from punishing the mentally ill, to simply locking them in so-called “asylums” (from the Middle English word for “place of refuge), which were just prisons where the mentally ill were locked away from society and subjected to neglect and abuse. It was only in WWI when scientific study into “shell shocked” soldiers was conducted that our understanding of mental illness and how to treat it began to resemble modern science and have any kind of effectiveness.
The thing about stigma around mental illness, however, is that it exacerbates the very issue it punishes. Those with mental illness who are met with frequent exposure to stigma are more likely to withdraw into themselves and not seek out help, causing their mental health to decline even further, and exposing them to more stigma.
Why It Happens
There are many reasons that stigma against mental illness and those who suffer from it exist today, but it just comes down to prevalent myths that have spread throughout society. Several of these myths come directly from the media we consume. Films, books, and TV shows that paint pictures of those with mental illnesses as inherently violent or dangerous. Early slasher flicks such as Scream, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street have all contributed to the image of “crazy” people as murderous, or violent. Movies like Psycho or Split are responsible for perpetuating the idea that those suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) are unpredictable and, again, violent.
There is a pattern in our representation of the mentally ill in the media. They are either violent and deranged murderers, or child-like quirky geniuses like Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman’s famed portrayal of an autistic savant became the go-to standard for society’s understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
There are even stigmas around the tools and methods people use to get help for their conditions. The act of going to therapy is often seen as a sign of weakness, and therapists are often met with suspicion and mistrust. Using medication to regulate mental illness is often criticised.
From the information we have, we can ascertain several key causes for the existence of mental illness stigma. The first is our sociocultural view of it. From humanity’s most ancient days, there has been the belief that those with mental health are evil and cannot be trusted. Although stigma these days is directed more to a person’s character than their morality, the fact is that mentally ill people are very much forced into an us vs them dynamic that they did nothing to earn.
Second is our media representation of the mentally ill, which feeds into and affirms the social myths and misconceptions that we have about various mental illnesses, leading to a form of all-encompassing confirmation bias and a prevalence of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The third major cause is a lack of effort on behalf of our schools and governments to educate future generations on mental illness, what it is, how it works, why it exists, and how to support those dealing with it.
Listen, Learn, Love
It may sound somewhat like a basic sign from a two dollar store, but when you run into someone with a mental illness it is never okay to dehumanise or demean that person or their struggles. If you’re fortunate to not understand what they’re talking about then it’s up to you to make the effort to at least be supportive. Shutting them down, calling them weak, saying that others have it worse, or the ever-famous “just cheer up”, are all just going to exacerbate the issue, and even cause that person to stop attempting to confide in you.
When someone comes to you telling you they’re not doing well, listen without judgement, make an honest effort to learn about their perspective, and treat them with the kindness and love that you would want to be treated if you were in their position.