Mental Health and Stigma

This assignment will discuss the stigma that is attached to having a mental illness, it will detail why this is an issue, what is being done to fight stigma, and what model of mental health can better help us to understand this issue. Having and living with mental illness each and every day can be extremely traumatic for the sufferer, this without having to face the stigma they often do.

Stigma is “a mark or sign of disgrace or discredit” as defined by the Oxford Handy Dictionary. Stigma causes people to feel uncomfortable around an issue, or can also cause people to mock the issue in order to make it less threatening to them. People who feel uncomfortable will often refuse to talk about mental illness therefore causing a silence around the subject. People usually tend to attach stigma to others that are different from them. Or often, due to mistaken beliefs, the mentally ill are thought to be dangerous. The stigma attached to mental illness is the main obstacle to better mental health care and better quality of life for people who have the illness, for their families, for their communities and for health service staff that deal with psychiatric disorders.

For people with mental health issues, stigma is a huge problem faced every day, causing difficulty in many, often everyday, things, for example finding employment, getting a mortgage, or simply getting up in the morning. It discourages victims of mental illness to seek the help they need, this leads to problems escalating due to lack of medical input, and in worst case scenarios, suicides. According to the Department of Health (1999) on average, two people with mental health problems commit suicide every day. In a study on student suicide by researchers from the University of Central

Lancashire with King’s College London, Stanley et al found (of twenty case studies of student suicides which occurred between May 2000 and June 2005) that many of the students were concerned about the stigma associated with use of mental health services and therefore some were unwilling to use them. Also the students’ friends and parents reported that a number of those who had died had viewed taking antidepressants as stigmatising and ineffective. Stigma directed from others is not the only type of stigma that can occur, self-stigma is also a problem in which the patient has experienced stigma or “knock backs” from others.

If a patient is diagnosed as having a mental illness, their friends may suddenly abandon them – because of the mental illness and the uncertainty surrounding it – a domino effect can ensue – they can feel as if there is no point trying to make new friends because of the stigma attached to their illness, we can query whether this enhances depressive feelings, and worthlessness. The question arises of why does mental illness cause such stigma?

There are two main answers to this question, firstly, cultural beliefs and then secondly the attitude and reporting of the media. Many people from different cultures see mental illness as shameful and therefore do not seek treatment until absolutely necessary. “Stigma and a lack of education about mental illness cause great suffering for Latino families, MaJos� Carrasco, M.P.A., director of the NAMI Multicultural Action Center, told attendees at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. In the minds of some Hispanics, “mental illness is associated with danger and violence and is often attributed to a lack of character or to punishment from God.” (Levin, 2007)

The media (especially tabloids) tend to lack sensitivity towards the mentally ill and fuel stigma and negative attitudes. By using words such as “psycho” and “bonkers” the media seems to be encourage people’s unfounded beliefs that stigma is acceptable and to believe that all mentally ill patients are dangerous. We have recently seen in many tabloids the case of “Gazza” (Paul Gascoigne) and his prolonged struggle with mental health issues, tabloid scrutiny and misrepresentation do little to discourage stigmatisation. The media also tends to report on only negative aspects of mental illness, for example news on a murder of an innocent bystander by a mentally ill person, when the reality is that nearly all victims of mental illness are harmless.

“Killings by people with mental disorders in England and Wales have fallen by two-thirds in the past quarter century, and are now at historically low levels. The finding, based on an analysis of official homicide statistics from 1946 to 2004, reveals that public concerns about increasing violence by mentally ill people are unfounded.” (Nowak, 2008) Through television, the population see characters (with mental illness) on programmes or films that are (in character) dangerous, sadistic and volatile. Obviously this type of mental illness does occur, but this makes for better viewing figures, and does not reflect the illness of the majority of mentally ill patients. It is the sad truth that mental health issues are not given the sensitivity that is necessary by the media. There are stereotypes all around us: popular films about murderers who have mental health issues. Then there is always news coverage of tragedies and violence caused by people with mental health issues.

The media’s use of terms like “psycho” or “crazy.” fuels the public’s impression of mental illness being dangerous and unspeakable. The use of the insanity defence in court cases, for example the case of the Hillside Strangler (Kenneth Bianchi) who raped, tortured and murdered a number of women in America. Bianchi claimed to have multiple personality disorder, thinking this would increase his chances of being found not guilty by reason of insanity – to try to escape what would inevitably be a life sentence in prison. Fortunately he did not convince psychologist Martin Orne and was deemed a clever liar, eventually having to change his plea to guilty.

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