by Comprehensive Staff

09/22/2015 10:19 pm

Mental Health Stigma is Scapegoating

stigma free

Let’s face it. Stigma about mental illness and other behavioral health disorders is a big problem.  The majority of the public in the United States have stigmatizing opinions about mental illness.  This is not limited to the uninformed. Professionals and even some mental health professionals ascribe stereotypes to persons with mental illness.  Sensational news stories about acts of violence and other dramatic events often place blame on “psychotic killers” and “crazies”.  Other media stereotypes include images of child-like beings or as persons who are responsible for their own mental problems due to defects in character.  Things are never that simple.

To be sure, sometimes persons with severe and legitimate mental illness commit serious crimes.  These make news.  Numerous studies show that, while these cases exist, the vast majority of crime and especially sensational crimes are not committed by persons with mental illness.  Frankly, one is at much higher risk of harm from the average street criminal than from a person with a serious mental illness.  Multiple reviews of mass killings over the past 20 plus years show that the overwhelming number of these killers are motivated by personal grievances (e.g., fired by their employer) or by some ideology religious or political.  Some would argue that someone would have to be crazy to do such a thing.  That is simply not true. Unfortunately there are many simply bad actors who get lumped in with those with legitimate illness and needs for treatment.

These stereotypes place many burdens on those who suffer from the genuine medical conditions called mental illness.  Stigma is the number one reason that people don’t get treatment.  I can’t tell you how many times patients or even more often family members do everything they can to avoid getting help out of fear of being discovered as having a mental illness in the family.  Studies show that less than 20% of those with treatable mental illnesses get treatment largely because of those fears.  Loss of employment, insurance coverage, housing or other rights and privileges also arise from the stigma attached to being known as having a mental illness.

This is simply not right and it isn’t fair.  Mental illnesses are treatable medical conditions and success can be measured. Did you know that well-treated serious depression can be treated more successfully than heart disease? We don’t scapegoat persons with chronic diseases like diabetes or congestive heart failure. Shouldn’t we be as compassionate to the 20% of us who will suffer a mental illness episode in our lifetime?