It is all but guaranteed that you know or love someone who has struggled or currently struggles with some type of mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2015), 1 in 5 adults in the United States (that’s 43.8 million people) experience mental illness in a given year. That’s a lot of people. Despite being so prevalent in our society, people struggling with mental illness face intense levels of stigmatization that often prevent them from getting the help that they need and can have impacts on things from their career to what landlords will rent to them.
Stigmatization is what happens when a label is applied to someone that implies they are different, deviant, or somehow flawed (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). There are many different things that are stigmatized in our society: obesity, the LGBTQ+ community, certain chronic health disorders including infertility, and many more. If it in any way deviates from what most people consider “the norm”, there is most likely a certain stigma attached to it. Once someone learns that you are associated with a stigmatizing characteristic, that becomes the master status by which they will judge everything else about you (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). They see you through the lens of this stigma and this influences their perception of your whole character, usually in a very negative way.
One thing that I have personally witnessed start to become less stigmatized is tattoos and piercings. Just 10 or 15 years ago, virtually no one was allowed to have visible tattoos, facial piercings, or excessive ear piercings in the service industry. In 2006, I was a waitress at a breakfast restaurant chain, and I had an eyebrow piercing. Their dress and appearance code was very strict about no facial piercings, and no more than two earrings in each ear. I had put a clear retainer in my piercing to go to work, and even that wasn’t acceptable as I was made to take it out during work hours. I recently went back to that chain and noticed that many of the people working there had facial piercings and visible tattoos, signifying to me that times were changing and these body modifications were becoming more accepted.
If only it worked like that with everything, right? There have been many campaigns to try to bring more awareness to mental health issues in an attempt to reduce the stigma surrounding them. There have been a few studies that suggest that while a person’s verbal acceptance – what they say about it – of mental illnesses is much higher than their actual behavioral acceptance – what they do when faced with an actual opportunity to prove this acceptance (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). The researchers would verify that an apartment for rent was still available and then they would call these landlords, posing as someone who identified themselves as a former or current psychiatric patient in need of housing accommodations (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). They found that in about 90% of these situations, the landlord provided “deliberately falsified” information about the availability of the apartment (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). In other words, they lied. People like to give acceptance of those with mental illnesses a lot of lip service, but maintain their same stigmatized views which go along with the theme of public acceptance but private rejection (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). This can be attributed to the social desirability of acceptance… even if someone isn’t really accepting, they don’t want to look bad by admitting it (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).
People with mental illnesses are often more stigmatized than people with physical illnesses (Ozer, Varlik, Ceri, Ince, & Arslan-Delice, 2017). They are often viewed by society as dangerous, frightening, unstable, irresponsible, unpredictable, and having communication issues (Ozer, Varlik, Ceri, Ince, & Arslan-Delice, 2017). That is some pretty heavy stuff. Is it any surprise then, that all people with any degree of mental illness are all lumped together like this and any time a serious crime is committed (like a mass shooting), it is automatically assumed that the perpetrator is mentally ill while being sensationalized by the media? While it is true that certain psychiatric conditions, like schizophrenia, are associated with violent behavior, it is only a small percentage of them and “even if the elevated risk of violence in people with mental illness is reduced to the average risk in those without mental illness, an estimated 96% of the violence that currently occurs in the general population would continue to occur” (Varshney, Mahapatra, & Krishnan et al, 2016).
Add on top of all of this that the media in the form of newspapers, TV shows, and movies, hardly every portrays people with mental illness in a flattering light. This only works to strengthen the stigma associated with the belief that mentally ill people are often violent and unpredictable and dangerous to others. As I mentioned earlier, the media loves to sensationalize tragic events and portray these violent offenders as mentally ill even when there is no such information to confirm this belief.
What can be done about this? There is some evidence that suggests that giving people information that counters these stigmas before they are introduced to stigmatizing portrayals of mental illness can help to reduce the perceived stigma (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Education always seems to be the key, doesn’t it? Parents and schools need to teach acceptance and inclusion of all different people of all different abilities and statuses to reduce the stigma not just of mental illness, but many other things as well.
NAMI. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
Ozer U, Varlik C, Ceri V, Ince B, Arslan-Delice M. Change starts with us: stigmatizing attitudes towards mental illnesses and the use of stigmatizing language among mental health professionals. Dusunen Adam The Journal of Psychiatry and Neurological Sciences 2017;30:224-232. https://doi.org/10.5350/DAJPN2017300306
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Applied Social Psychology. Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.