5 common ways people stigmatize mental illness
Many people unintentionally contribute to mental health stigmas. Here's how we can change that.
Katie Mcpherson Published: 5/30/2018
One in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness each year, so it’s likely you or someone you know will be affected by it in your lifetime. Unfortunately, the stigmas surrounding mental illness can keep many people from speaking up or seeking help, and make those who are diagnosed feel judged, weak or flawed.
“I have seen adolescents who didn’t want to go to school anymore because they were laughed at or because people didn’t want to associate with them,” said Blanche Williams, PhD, psychologist with Baptist Behavioral Health. “I’ve seen adults afraid to try new things for similar reasons. I think the main thing stigmas do is lower their self-esteem. It’s hard to think well of yourself if people reject you because you’ve been given a mental health diagnosis.”
1. Labelling someone based on their condition
When someone is diagnosed with a physical condition like arthritis or diabetes, it would be considered insensitive to call them an “arthritic” or a “diabetic.” People aren’t defined by their diseases. However, you’ve probably heard people calling others “schizophrenic,” “depressed” or “bipolar.”
“There is a tendency to characterize a whole human being in terms of a diagnosis, and that’s so unfair to a person,” said Dr. Williams. “Most people have some sort of medical illness every now and then and probably wouldn’t want to be known as the diabetic. There’s a big movement within the mental health community to get the public to stop using mental health diagnoses that way.”
2. Blaming tragedies on mental illness
After a mass shooting, authorities and media outlets seem to always focus on the mental health of the perpetrator. More often than not, they do so without knowing if the person has any history of mental illness. Drawing these connections between mental health and major tragedies feeds into the myth that people with mental illness are violent, dangerous or more likely to commit crimes.
“Then we get public discussions about mental illness that just are not accurate,” said Dr. Williams. In reality, people who live with mental health conditions are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes rather than the perpetrators. Fewer than 5 percent of gun-related killings are committed by someone diagnosed with a mental illness, according to a 2015 study.
3. Using terms like depressed and OCD to describe normal feelings
We all have tough days, but when we use clinical diagnoses to describe our feelings, it can minimize how difficult those conditions are for those who live with them.
“Over the years as different diagnoses have become more well-known to the public, what these conditions really mean doesn’t keep up with the awareness of the name,” explained Dr. Williams.
For example, if you like things neat and tidy, describing yourself as OCD minimizes the impact obsessive- compulsive disorder can have on someone’s quality of life. Saying you’re depressed because you finished the last episode of your latest binge-watching show discounts the fact that those with depression can experience debilitating symptoms.
“When we talk that way, it trivializes the mental illness, and makes it into something that can become a joke. The impact of a joke on a person who really does have an illness could be serious,” said Dr. Williams.
4. Judging or teasing someone for abnormal behavior
Dr. Williams shared examples of her patients being made fun of for their symptoms.
“People with mental illness can be mocked for, for example, hearing things that aren’t there. People would make fun of that and say ‘Oh, he’s just hearing voices again’ or ‘Can you hear me now?’ Sometimes people will put those who are anxious in bad situations by saying ‘It’s crazy to be afraid of small spaces’ and then taking them to a small space to see how they’ll act. If the person really has that phobia, it can cause a major problem.”
Dr. Williams pointed out that you wouldn’t joke about someone’s physical illness, and the same should apply to mental illness.
“Mocking someone for their symptoms — and that can go for someone with a physical illness as well — just goes against everything we know about how to treat people well,” said Dr. Williams.
5. Referring to people with mental illness as crazy or psycho
The last thing someone living with mental illness needs is to be put down for their condition.
“People with mental illness are sometimes thought of as crazy or insane. Any time we are put into a category based on just a piece of who we are, and placed in that category from a negative perspective, it affects our self-esteem. It makes us feel alienated, and can sometimes make our symptoms worse,” said Dr. Williams.
How do we change?
If you’ve done any of these things, you’re not alone — we’ve all made these mistakes. Dr. Williams says the best way to change these behaviors is to apply the Golden Rule: treat others as we would want to be treated.
“The very best thing is to think, ‘How would I respond if someone did this to me? What if someone took one of my behaviors and made fun of me for it?’ We have to develop empathy,” she said.
She also suggested that people take note of accurate representations of mental illness in pop culture, like Silver Linings Playbook, one of her favorite movies depicting mental health.
“It’s important to recognize when the professional mental health community points out a movie or a book that portrays mental illness correctly,” she said. “They can help people understand what mental illness is really like, and start chipping away at stigmas. We need to develop a more tolerant society where we can see others in their full light.”