End the mental illness stigma

Katherine Garcia

May is mental health awareness month, but the stigma surrounding individuals living with a mental illness extends much further than that. As the news boils over with horrific stories of violent crimes, mental illness appears to be the only explainable cause for such overwhelming tragedy. Yes, it is a dangerous world to live in, but it becomes more dangerous still when looking down on the misunderstood. The consequences of stigma are apparent throughout history with the types of treatment imposed upon people with a mental illness. Stigma is also visible today through representations in the media which have the power to feed or starve it. Mental illness is defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders),” as stated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Mental illness is quite prevalent among adults in the U.S and is said to affect 18.6 percent of all adults, with statistics significantly higher for certain age groups and races, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With so much of the population being affected, the lack of appropriate discourse on the subject is troubling. The problem lies in viewing mental illness as taboo. Those suffering from it are not encouraged to speak out about something that is not externally visible to the human eye. Recent media seem to be making adjustments to cater to this growing demand and will continue to do so if held to a higher standard. “Clean, Shaven”, “The Hours”, “Melancholia”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, and “Welcome to Me” are some of the more recent examples of positive characterization of people with a variety of mental disorders. However, it is difficult to escape the abundance of horror films depicting characters with a mental illness as violent and dangerous criminals. “Perhaps the most common myth is that people with a mental illness are dangerous and violent,” Danny Wedding explains in an interview for Vice. “The evidence is very clear that somebody with a disease like schizophrenia is far more likely to be a victim of violence than to be the perpetrator of violence.” Unfortunately, the horror stories depicted in films are not isolated to the big screen, they are happening frighteningly close to home. This reinforces the link between violent behavior and mental health issues. However, the validity of such a connection is questionable. “The tendency to connect peoples’ crimes to mental illness diagnoses that are not in fact associated with criminality needs to go away,” Andrew Solomon said in an interview for Ideas.ted.com. “You think, yes, you could sort of indicate here this person was depressed and he murdered everyone, but most people who are depressed do not murder everyone.” Ending the stigma will take more than accurate media representations, however. It means society must make an effort to redefine the way mental health issues are discussed and studied. Considering how differences in race, class, gender, and sexuality could alter how mental illness is experienced is the first step in viewing mental health through an intersectional lens. Individual efforts also go a long way in curbing negative perceptions. This involves avoiding the linking of violence with a mental disorder, understanding the connection between suicide and mental illness, avoiding demeaning language such as “crazy,” and talking about personal mental health experiences to increase awareness, Thu- Huong Ha from Ideas.ted.com writes. It also involves avoiding connecting a person’s identity with their mental illness and using appropriate language when referring to a person suffering from a disorder. For example, avoid calling a person who has schizophrenia a schizophrenic. “Mental health care is not just a budget issue for America but a cultural one as well,” Tyra McFarland, a representative of West Allis for the Miss America Organization, said. She has chosen Home-Base: Coping with Mental Illness as her platform because, coming from a family who struggled with mental illness, she understands how overwhelming it can be to cope without resources or support. “I know there are children who live with parents who have a mental illness, it’s not easy,” McFarland said. “We are no longer dealing with the person we love but the illness.” Mental illness is the big elephant in the room seen by all but addressed by few, but it is here to stay and the time to accommodate it is now.