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Mental illness, though it is common and occurs in 1 in 5 adults in a single year in some form (“Mental Health Numbers”), is not very understood in today’s society. Many people do not understand how mental illness occurs, how it presents itself, or what people with mental illness are like. Because of this lack of understanding, stigmatization of mental illness occurs. The stigma associated with mental illness presents itself in two main forms: public stigma, which is the view that society holds, and self stigma, which is the prejudice that people with mental illness hold against themselves (Corrigan and Watson). Both forms of stigma are harmful. Self-stigma can result in self hatred and insecurities. Public stigma can result in prejudice, misconceptions, and even discrimination of people with mental illness. Society stigmatizes mental illness in many ways, which often has disastrous effects on individuals living with mental illness.
Today’s society stigmatizes mental illness in many ways. Movies and television, for example, often portray mental illness and the people who have it as dangerous and something to be feared. Wonderland, a TV show that premiered in 2000, depicts a schizophrenic man going on a shooting spree and stabbing a pregnant doctor (Tartakovsky). In the 1909 movie The Maniac Cook, the antagonist is a stereotypical escaped mental patient who is violent and a danger to society (Stobbe). American Psycho perpetuates the stereotype that people who suffer from psychosis are homicidal killers (Stobbe). 2017’s Split featured a kidnapper with Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as DID or Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), as the main villain (Nedelman). Depictions of mental illness in this way in movies and television are shockingly common.
In fact, according to Cheryl K. Olson, ScD., “Studies have found that dangerousness/crime is the most common theme of stories on mental illness” (Tartakovsky). The news also contributes to the problematic view of mental illness in society. According to John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 20% of American adults will experience some form of mental illness, yet, “nearly four in 10 news stories about mental illness analyzed by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers connect mental illness with violent behavior toward others, even though less than five percent of violence in the United States is directly related to mental illness” (“Violence with Mental Illness”).
In addition, many news stories use the terms “psychosis” and “psychopathy” interchangeably (“psychosis” is in reference to psychotic mental illness, but “psychopath” refers to someone who is violent and antisocial; psychopathy is not necessarily caused by mental illness), use ableist terms like “lunatic,” and imply that violence is inherently caused by mental illness (SANE). According to Professor George Gerbner’s cultivation theory, “Television makes specific and measurable contributions to viewers’ conceptions of reality” (Shewmaker). Gerbner spent over 3 decades studying television’s effect on viewers and how they perceived the world around them. Using the term “resonance” to define “the strengthening of the belief that certain life experiences are more common than they really are due to viewing a reality presented through media,” Gerbner found that frequent, heavy viewers of television are more likely to share the same beliefs than infrequent viewers, despite variables like, race, gender, age, and socioeconomic standing (Shewmaker). Gerbner’s research showed that television can have a substantial impact of people’s perceptions of the world, especially if they watch a significant amount of it.
Negative portrayals of mental illness and people who are mentally ill are often the most common, and sometimes only, exposure people have to mental illness. When this is the case, those people are usually unaware that this depiction is inaccurate. They believe the myths and stigma perpetuated by movies, television, and the news because they do not know otherwise. The more that people believe this flawed and dangerous view of mental illness, the more ingrained in our society the belief comes, resulting in stereotypes, myths, misconceptions, and even discrimination against individuals with mental illness, which are all other forms of mental illness stigma. There are many myths about mental illness in our society, including the myth that mentally ill people are violent. “Research suggests that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence,” according to Cheryl K. Olson, ScD. (Tartakovsky).
Over ten times more likely than the general population, to be exact (“Myths and Facts”). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only about 3%-5% of all violent crimes are committed by people with severe mental illness (“Myths and Facts”). Mentally ill people are no more violent than the rest of the general population, yet they are all too often stereotyped as “violent killers” and “crazed lunatics”. Another common myth is that mental illness in teenagers is just a phase. “American Pie” and “Heathers” are two movies that perpetuate this myth, showing alcohol/substance abuse and depression as standard behavior for teens (Tartakovsky). “Thirteen” portrays a main character who does not seek professional help, despite self-harm, substance abuse, and an eating disorder (Tartakovsky).
Portrayals like this can cause people to dismiss teenagers when they come forward with their mental illness and brush off their serious symptoms as “just a phase.” Another common misconception is that people with mental illness can just “snap out of it.” “Mental health problems have nothing to do with being lazy or weak and many people need help to get better. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including biological factors, such as genes, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse; family history of mental health problems,” (“Myths and Facts”). Mental illness is not simply a state of mind, it is a physical change in brain chemistry and how the brain functions. It is not simply something that people can pull themselves out of, despite common belief. A final commonly believed myth about mental illness is that it never gets better.
In the TV show Monk, the lead character has diagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While his portrayal is primarily positive and accurate, his condition never improves, despite regularly attending therapy (Tartakovsky). Professor of psychology at the University of Hartford Otto Wahl, Ph.D believes that portrayal only further perpetuates the misconception that therapy and treatment are largely ineffective (Tartakovsky). However, studies have shown repeatedly that people with mental illness can improve or even recover completely with the right treatment, which, depending on the individual, can be therapy, medication, or a combination of the two (“Myths and Facts”).
Even disorders with very severe symptoms, like schizophrenia, can be effectively improved and treated and people with mental illness can be functional, upstanding members of society (Tartakovsky). Mental illness, even if it does last for an individual’s entire lifetime, can be improved greatly and people with mental illness can live functional lives. Overall, mental health stigma is extensive in our society and substantially influences how we view mental illness.
The stigmatization of mental illness often has dangerous, sometimes disastrous effects on people with mental illness. In 1996, the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted a study administering the Mac Arthur Health Module to 1444 American adults and found that over half of respondents would refuse to work with, allow a family member to marry, or even socialize with someone with a mental illness (Corrigan and Watson). This discrimination was also found to affect how participants believed mentally ill people should be treated. Over 40% of participants believed that people with schizophrenia should be forced to go through treatment, even though recent studies have not been able to determine any effectiveness in forced mental health treatment (Corrigan and Watson).
Furthermore, much of the public believes that people with serious or severe psychiatric illnesses should be segregated into mental institutions (Corrigan and Watson). Mental institutions and asylums have historically been guilty of abuse, significant over-medication, and other atrocities against their patients and residents. Forcing people into them would likely be detrimental to their health, both mental and physical, and potentially even fatal. The stigma of mental illness has also been found to affect the ability of people with mental illness to find and keep good jobs, safe and affordable housing (Corrigan and Watson), and school and social activities (“Overcoming Stigma”). It can also often lead to bullying and harassment, health insurance that does not fully cover mental health treatment, and an insufficiency of understanding by family, friends, coworkers, and other peers (“Overcoming Stigma”). There are also many effects that are inward and affect individuals with mental illness directly, rather than through other people. Low self esteem and negative self image are very common in people with mental illness.
According to Patrick W. Corrigan and Amy C. Watson at the University of Chicago Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research, along with the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “people with psychiatric disability, living in a society that widely endorses stigmatizing ideas, will internalize these ideas and believe that they are less valued because of their psychiatric disorder. Self-esteem suffers, as does confidence in one’s future” (Corrigan and Watson). Research also suggests that self-doubt and fear of rejection by others that results from one’s own self stigma can lead to many people rejecting the pursuit of life opportunities (Corrigan and Watson), along with the belief that they will “never be able to succeed at certain challenges” or that they cannot improve or remedy their situation (“Overcoming Stigma”).
According to Corrigan, “Low self efficacy,” which he defines as the expectation to be capable at successfully performing a specific act or behavior under certain circumstances, “and demoralization has been shown to be associated with failing to pursue work or independent living opportunities at which people with mental illness might otherwise succeed” (Corrigan). More dangerously, mental illness stigma often leads to mentally ill persons avoiding treatment and not seeking the professional help they could benefit from. In 2012, it was discovered that, despite major improvements in quality and accessibility of care, only 40.4% of people with a mental illness received care (Corrigan, Druss, and Perlick). While this is a significant improvement from the 24.3% of individuals with serious mental illness that sought care in 1990 (Corrigan, Druss, and Perlick), it is still a significant minority.
Furthermore, many people who begin treatment never complete it, with approximately 20% of people seeking treatment quitting prematurely, 70% of whom dropped out of treatment after their first or second visit (Corrigan, Druss, and Perlick). In 1998, the Schizophrenia Patient Outcome Research Team conducted a nationwide survey among individuals with schizophrenia and found that less than 50% of participants reported psychotherapy treatment and only about 10% of individuals received intensive case management (Corrigan). In 1998, a review of 34 studies found that over 40% of people receiving antipsychotic medication did not fully adhere with prescription regimens (Corrigan). This avoidance is often a direct result of stigma, both public and self. Stigma can cause shame and embarrassment about one’s mental illness, making it significantly more difficult for the individual to find the motivation or bravery to seek or go through treatment. The detrimental effects of stigma do not end there, however. Mental illness, especially when left untreated, can worsen due to the shame, guilt, and embarrassment from stigma that can lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts or actions, often resulting in suicide.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), “…each year more than 41,000 individuals die by suicide, leaving behind thousands of friends and family members to navigate the tragedy of their loss. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults in the U.S. and the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-24; these rates are increasing” (“Risk of Suicide”). The risk of suicide is greatly reduced when individuals who are at risk for suicide seek help, which is often difficult or nearly impossible due to mental illness stigma.
Mental illness is very common, yet the general public tends to have a very limited understanding of it. Because of this lack of knowledge of what mental illness is and what it really means for mentally ill individuals, stigma occurs in many forms, most commonly in the media and as myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions. This stigma often has disastrous results on people living with mental illness, including feelings of shame and embarrassment, avoidance of important treatment, and even suicide.
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