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How Mental Illness Stigmas Lead To Discrimination

Mad. Maniac. Crazy. Insane. All of these are terms we have become so familiar with that we no longer see the problem in saying them. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness per year. Setting that aside, the ever-present stigma revolving around mental illness is a notion that perpetually fails to sympathize with and humanize individuals who suffer from it. Sociologist Erving Goffman believed stigma to be an “attribute that is socially discrediting, leading people to be unjustly rejected.” As humans, we are naturally attracted to the idea of fitting in and being accepted in a social setting. Therefore, being perceived as the outliers is not something that is appealing to us. For that reason, stigma acts as a barrier that separates society’s idea of normal from the undesirable ailments of the human psyche. Though mental health includes different types of disorders and wide scopes that each can fall under, depression, bipolar, and social anxiety are three widely common terms that are used loosely and, more often than not, completely out of context which eventually leads to a cycle of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.

By definition, major depression disorder is a severe form of depression that interferes with concentration, decision-making, and sociability. Though it can manifest in a variety of ways, some of MDD’s common symptoms include: severe sadness, feelings of uselessness, worthlessness, loneliness, sleep disturbances, and risk of suicide. Research indicates that women are twice as likely to experience depression than men. Furthermore, in most cases when someone confesses that they are “feeling depressed” or that they are “depressed”, they are told to “be happy” or to “snap out of it” as if depression is a button that can be turned on and off whenever one pleases. Observers now realize that because depression can be caused by several things, it is viewed as a “collection of disorders” that have a variety of causes and involve many parts of the brain. Yet, despite all of the modern research and breakthroughs in the field of psychology, our society lacks the basic foundation of tackling mental illness by being incapable of normalizing talking about it. Commonly, in our global community, people who suffer from mental illness also suffer from depersonalization, which is robbing them of their individuality and treating them as objects rather than individuals. In turn, this type of treatment further extends the negative preconceived opinions and prejudices about people with mental illness for how others react and behave towards them. For example, people with a mental illness such as depression are seen as incompetent and people with substance abuse disorders are seen as immoral. So, however people decide to behave towards them is considered to be acceptable. Therefore, as put by psychologists Johnson, McCann, and Zimbardo, “society extracts costly penalties from those who deviate from its norms – and in the process perpetuates the problem of mental disorder.”

Prejudice and the labeling of people with mental illnesses can turn into stereotyping, which masks their uniqueness and personal characteristics. Stereotypes are harmful and disrespectful beliefs about a group of people. In the case of people with mental illnesses, beliefs about them being dangerous, unpredictable, and to blame for their illness remain existent. Specifically for people with bipolar disorder, a common stereotype is that they are people whose moods are constantly changing; that they are incredibly happy for a minute and then extremely sad the next. Previously known as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is characterized by its episodes of manic highs and deep depression, where the depressive episodes are indistinguishable from those of major depression. Mania manifests itself through imagination, excitement, and energy that can contribute to the production of creative works. Similar to major depression, bipolar disorder is categorized as a mood disorder that can be caused by multiple things. A possible cause is genetic and biochemical roots, where the disease runs in the family or there are alterations between neurotransmitters. Furthermore, behavioral factors can also lead to the presence of mood disorders, in which they would cause a reduction in positive reinforcers and stimulate the symptoms of the illness. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that there is a relationship between stereotypes about bipolar disorder and stigma. In fact, psychologist Patrick W. Corrigan argues that stigmatizing behavior towards those that are mentally ill impacts care seeking and any interaction between patients and mental health providers. This is due to the fact that during the process of public stigmatization, the general population endorses stereotypes and discriminates against people labeled as mentally ill, which in turn forces them to avoid asking for help in order to spare themselves the stigmatizing labels. As a result of public stigma, a person with a mental illness can turn resort to self-stigmatization by internalizing the prejudice and stereotypes. When that occurs, they would begin to agree with the notions, and shortly after – fall into the pit of self-applying the stigma, which not only yields a negative impact on self esteem, but also generates shame.

Indeed, self-stigmatization can display itself through self-discrimination. It initiates the “why try” effect amongst individuals with mental illness, leading them to thoughts and feelings of unworthiness and uselessness. Unlike major depression and bipolar disorder, social phobia (aka social anxiety disorder) is categorized under disorders relating to anxiety rather than mood. In a nutshell, it is described as a strong fear of being judged by others or being embarrassed. It can be so severe that it interferes with everyday life. Individuals with social anxiety are afraid of doing common things in front of people. Some triggers may include public-speaking, talking with authority figures at work, being called in class, taking an exam at school, using public bathrooms, meeting new people, and attending parties. Furthermore, its symptoms exist in an array, some common ones are feeling self-conscious, worrying weeks prior to an event, blushing, sweating, and feeling nauseous. Whether or not the social phobia is diagnosed as mild or acute, people who deal with it are not exempt from the stigma associated with mental illness. Especially with social anxiety, it’s a popular misconception to believe that “everyone gets anxious and they get over it”.  However, in many cases the disorder is so severe that they are left completely housebound. Therefore, researchers argue that improper knowledge about mental illnesses, as well as their treatments, produce stigmatizing attitudes and discriminatory behavior, which results in the continuation of the destructive cycle of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.

As a global community, we must familiarize ourselves with the possible mental health treatments and solutions in order to be of help to those who need it. One thing we could do is expand our mental health literacy, which is described as information and beliefs about mental illness that aid in its recognition, management, and prevention. It also uses mental health first aid skills to support others. Moreover, mental health advocates believe that the focus should be on discriminatory behaviors and the actions of others that block the pursuit of independent living goals. Also, researchers are calling for evolving notions of burden to include empowerment and recovery, whether it is through psychotherapy, drug therapy, or group therapy.

In conclusion, all people deserve to feel capable, satisfied, and content with whatever lifestyle they choose to lead. If they just so happen to deal with a mental illness, then the fear of turning into a stigmatized stereotype should not deter the need for professional help and care. The only real change begins with us, therefore in order to end the cycle, we must begin by educating ourselves, as well as those around us, in order to support those that we care about and love. Whether or not they might be dealing with major depression, bipolar disorder, or social anxiety, the human race must talk in order to tackle this social issue.

 

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