Is Stigma a Problem? Is Systemic Breakdown?
Some people who have mental illnesses say that stigma is a problem. Others say that’s not the real problem – a lack of social or political action is. I say, why not combine the two?
Stigma Fighters (https://stigmafighters.com/) and other organizations such as the International Bipolar Foundation (ibpf.org/), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) (https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Pledge-to-Be-StigmaFree), and even Facebook groups, promote the eradication of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. They say that mental illness is stigmatized in our society – some even deny that it exists – because people don’t understand it. This happens when churches say that mental illness is a sign of sin or refuse to welcome people with mental problems into their congregations or have any kind of outreach to them. It happens when a person is honest about having a mental illness and tells her boss or friends about it and receives negative feedback, incomprehension, or the back-away-slowly-and-don’t-make-eye-contact look.
People who believe that stigma is a problem say that stigma is one of the largest reasons that people refuse to seek treatment for their mental disorders. Being seen going into a psychiatric clinic, people finding out that the person sees a psychiatrist, and being ignored or discounted when talking about mental illness are seen as ways that stigma propagates.
People who believe that stigma is a problem promote education as the main solution. If more people understood what mental illness is and how many people suffer from it, they would be less likely to discriminate against those who have mental conditions. Stories about celebrities who have mental dysfunctions or whose relatives do are considered inspiring and helpful. Stars who speak out encourage others to seek treatment (though it’s increasingly true that public expressions of mental illness diagnoses are tied to specific online therapy businesses).
People who believe that political action is necessary also try to effect changes in people’s thinking, but, more importantly, support changes in the systems that are supposed to provide services to the mentally ill. These systems include schools where mental illness plays no part in the curriculum; lack of beds for psychiatric patients in hospitals; the response of police to calls regarding people with mental disturbances; the number of medical schools that provide no information to doctors; the lack of psychiatrists, especially in rural communities, which mean people must wait a long time for services or have no access to them at all; politicians who put mental health issues low on their list of priorities; law enforcement that reacts with deadly violence to calls involving persons with mental illnesses; and health insurance and EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) that treat mental illness differently than physical illness or even addictions. NAMI promotes grassroots activism as one facet of the appropriate response to such problems (https://www.nami.org/Advocacy/Advocate-for-Change).
People advocating for political change also see education as one partial solution to the problems caused or exacerbated by insurance companies, educators, medical schools, media, law enforcement personnel, correctional facilities, and politicians. Political action is seen as the right course to take to improve conditions. (Though it should be noted that people have sent books about the breakdown in societal responses to mental illness to politicians and receive only standardized, unhelpful “thank you” letters that are mostly signed and sent by staffers rather than the political figure.)
I say that education is the best response to both of these problems. Education of the general population about the realities of mental illness will lead to less stigma. Education of the voters, their representatives, and their local communities will help to lessen the inequities and difficulties that now abound.
This will not be easy. Education about the realities of mental illness is hard to convey to either citizens at large or politicians and others who have some degree of authority. Until it touches their own lives, people will largely be blind to the problems. Educational campaigns and the testimony of celebrities may help educate individuals. But politicians are likewise only affected by the aspects that touch their own lives, such as the public revelations by those like Kitty Dukakis (wife of former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis), who has been quite open about her mental difficulties and her ECT treatments (https://www.amazon.com/Shock-Healing-Power-Electroconvulsive-Therapy/dp/1583332839).
What I fear is that these individual occurrences will motivate only a small number of people enough to make a change in society as a whole. It’s easy enough to say, “Oh, Catherine Zeta-Jones has bipolar disorder. Too bad for her, but that doesn’t affect me” or “Someone in my family has a mental illness, but my constituents won’t support legislation to benefit the homeless mentally ill or to provide halfway houses in their neighborhoods. Better to spend my time and influence on stopping terrorism or drugs.”
But until or unless something changes, mental health will still be swept aside or ignored outright. People at large need to understand that just because mental illness hasn’t touched their lives so far, it still could in the future. Public officials and public servants need to believe that mental illness issues are vital to their communities and something that can be made better if only they have the courage and compassion to make the necessary changes.
Stigma-fighting or political action? Both are problems that need solving and education is at least part of the solution to both. And it appears that it’s up to us, those who have mental illnesses, to do the educating.
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