The Mental Illness Stigma: Is it really an Issue?

Being unemployed, I have a lot of time on my hands.  I’m talking about copious amounts of time.  Shortly after losing my job, I got cabin fever.  Between sending out my resume, dropping off my resume and following up with potential employers, I decided everything needed cleaned in the house.  I scrubbed the walls, reorganized and disinfected.  I made a “craft” out of some sticks and an owl vase for God’s sake.  To say the least, I am bored.  When I’m not job hunting, working out, or pursuing my artistic side through writing, drawing or music, I am surfing the web.  And when I surf the web I spend a pretty decent portion of time on the beloved Facebook.

I have noticed a trend on Facebook during my ridiculous amount news feed surfing.  I have seen post after post of people remarking about the stigma of mental illness.  From people taking pictures on instagram with their prescriptions for mental illness to Blogs regarding the mental illness stigma, I have seen it all.  The most recent was regarding the lovely establishment of Target (or as we all know it is pronounced Targèt…with a silent “t” of course).  Some people found it offensive that Target is selling a sweater that defines OCD as Obsessive Christmas Disorder.  While the gesture was meant to be cute and get us all into the Christmas spirit, some decided they wanted to be in the negative Nancy spirit.  You can read more about the terrible sweater here.

In case you are not aware, OCD actually stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  OCD is a mental illness associated with compulsions that the sufferer has to submit to in order to relieve the obsession which they are consumed by.  For example, one may have an unrealistic obsession that their home may be burglarized, therefore they have to constantly check the locks on their doors as the compulsion.  Some obsessions and compulsions are much more…different.  For example, you can read about Ernst Lanzer here, who had an intense obsession that his friend and father would be tortured using a strange, Chinese method involving a rat.  OCD is often associated with other mental illnesses, such as anxiety.

After seeing the horrifically offensive sweater at Target, people hastily took to social media to post about how angry the sweater made them.  I saw an array of posts remarking about the mental illness stigma, which got me thinking…As a person that struggles with mental illness, is this stigma as big of a deal as people are making it out to be?  Time to do some research!

Stigma is usually a word used to imply humiliation or negativity.  People with mental illness often report that they have experienced some sort of stigma based on their mental illness.  So basically, in the words of Vanessa, the stigma of mental illness is any stereotype, negativity or prejudice based on the fact that one is mentally ill.

So is there still stereotyping of the mentally ill?  I needed to have an unbiased answer, so I did some digging.  My research took me back to the 1600’s.  The Salem Witch Trials began in 1692.  Many new theories suggest that the women and girls put to death during these trials were suffering from epilepsy and yes, mental illness.  In the 1700’s, people with mental illnesses were locked in workhouses, prisons and special cells in hospitals.  By the end of the 18th century, special institutions for mentally ill began to develop.  In the 1800’s, asylums became overcrowded and conditions were abysmal for mentally ill patients.  Doctor’s shocked, cut open and experimented on these patients.  In the 1900’s children who were showing signs of mental illness were treated with electric shock.  To come up with a vaccine for hepatitis, mentally ill children were intentionally given the disease.  Other things to take place in the 1900’s were infecting the mentally ill with malaria, insulin induced comas, more shocking of the brain and lobotomies.

But what about now?  As a person who has dealt with depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive habits and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I have never had my brain shocked to the point of convulsions.  I have never had a piece of my brain surgically removed.  I have never been given malaria, hepatitis or an insulin induced coma.  I’ve never been confined in unlivable conditions based on my mental health.  So how do we experience discrimination in 2015?

I do have to say, though I haven’t been horribly treated due to my mental illness, I have been treated differently.  I have had people ask me why I can’t seem to get out of bed and shower, when other people have it so much worse.  I have had people tell me that my obsessions and compulsions are for attention.  I have had people tell me to “just calm down” from my anxiety.  And when I try to talk about my PTSD, I’ve had people tell me “oh well, it’s in the past now.”  But this isn’t their fault.  If you don’t have a mental illness, you don’t always know how to handle people that do.  Just like if you’ve never had cancer, you don’t always know what to say when you find out a loved one has been diagnosed.

So what do we do about this?  Mentally ill people are often believed to be violent, or criminals, or the type of mentally ill portrayed on television.  I have to admit, even one of my favourite TV shows, “Criminal Minds” is all about criminals and mental illnesses associated with certain violent crimes.  Obviously, that is just a television show and the entire premise of the show is based on mentally ill criminals.  It is by no means saying that all criminals, or even most criminals, are mentally ill.   But to those watching that are not aware, they may assume that all violent people are mentally ill.  But the truth is, the mentally ill are eight times more likely to be robbed, 15 times more likely to be assaulted, and 23 times more likely to be victims of rape.  Why?  Perhaps one of the reasons is they are considered easier targets.  In fact, I was told by my ex, I was not allowed to tell anyone he did anything to me because I had depression and no one would believe me.  95 per cent of homicides are committed by people not diagnosed with a mental health problem, such as schizophrenia.  To help put this into perspective, you have a one in 88 chance of being killed in a car accident.  You have a one in 14,300,000 chance of being killed by a stranger with schizophrenia.  People with mental illnesses are not as scary as they are made out to be and there are more of us out there than you realize.  Mental illnesses make up about 13 per cent of the world’s disease burden.  That is higher than heart disease and cancer.  So if you have a loved one with a heart problem, or cancer, you probably know someone with a mental illness too.  In the United States, people with mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than those without.  60 per cent of mentally ill adults that are willing and able to work cannot find jobs, as apposed to only 20 per cent of those willing and able to work that are not mentally ill.

It is time to end the mental illness stigma.  If you learn someone you love has been diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia an anxiety disorder, or any other mental illness, do your research.  Even if you don’t know anyone, you should still do your research.  Educate yourselves on the matter of mental illness.  Learn what is inappropriate to say to someone with a mental illness and what is actually helpful.  Because let’s face it, no one with a mental illness wants to hear “everyone get’s  a little down in the dumps,” or “why don’t you just get over it.”








The Mental Illness Stigma: Is it really an Issue?