I wrote a post once about the difficulties of the mentally ill in finding and keeping jobs, how little employers think about hiring them, and how a mental disorder must often be kept secret if employment is to continue. And all that despite legal protections that are unknown or ignored. I received a vitriolic response that “those people” shouldn’t be hired, much less be promoted above and be supervising other employees like the writer. I couldn’t answer it, for fear of my keyboard bursting into flames.
There is no doubt that there is a stigma surrounding mental illness. People with mental disorders are blamed whenever gun violence occurs, even though the mentally ill are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. We are often considered to be violent, disruptive, and incurable – when we’re not ignored completely, especially in health care planning and treatment options.
The stigma even adheres to people around us. Mental disorders are still often linked in the media (particularly true crime books) to dominating or cold mothers, ineffectual or authoritarian fathers, and incest or abuse from any family members. While many mental illnesses have at least a genetic component, blaming the parents or family is an easy explanation that doesn’t hold water. Family or other kinds of trauma may cause psychological problems, but they don’t cause disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar.
These falsehoods have wide circulation and many – perhaps most – people believe them. They are perpetuated by the media and by lack of knowledge about the realities of mental illness.
Part of the problem is how people find out about mental illness. Largely, mental illness is an “invisible illness.” Most people know little about it until it touches them or their family in some way. Even then, misinformation and prejudices against the mentally ill may impede or delay treatment and devastate families and other relationships.
Books, movies, and television are little help. The drama and horror of the “psycho killer” drive the plots of many kinds of “entertainment.” Even programs that try to present a more balanced view of mental illness do not have a great track record of getting it right, often perpetuating stereotypes even when they don’t intend to. Among these notions are that psychotherapy lasts forever, medications don’t work or create zombie-like affect, treatments are brutal, hospitalization is for psychotics and schizophrenics only, and the mentally ill are an occasion of comedy.
Then there’s suicide. The mixed messages about that are incredible. Suicide is cowardly. It’s easy. It’s noble. It’s a viable solution to problems. It is usually interrupted. The suicidal give no indications. Most suicides are successful. Bullying causes suicide. Teens, bankrupt businessmen (it’s almost always men), and people who have terminal illnesses are the most likely to die by suicide.
Yes, there are messages that promote understanding of mental illness and those who have mental disorders. Celebrities like Glenn Close and Carrie Fisher have used their star-power and their personal experiences to shine a spotlight on the subject. Unfortunately, 60-second PSAs aren’t the best vehicles for explaining complex and difficult problems that affect people in so many different ways. Autobiographies are better, but given how few Americans read these days (and the thrillers and romances they choose), how much of the message makes it out to the general populace?
Most of us with mental illness are talking primarily to each other. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; in fact, it’s necessary to support one another and share information about our personal struggles and what has helped us survive and heal.
But more coordinated public information campaigns are needed. Think about Susan G, Komen and other organizations promoting awareness of breast cancer. Think how many Facebook messages you see about lost dogs or endangered wild horses. Think how schoolchildren are learning about protecting the environment and saving dolphins, whales, and pandas. Hell, people know about the Girl Scouts primarily through cookie sales and the Salvation Army primarily through Santa-clad bell ringers.
The truth is, stigma will continue until we educate the general populace about mental illness – until they understand that it’s an illness like many others, with treatments and hope available, and a need for research, and places to find help.
Unfortunately, those kinds of efforts require money, and organization, and leadership, three things that are sorely lacking in society as we know it.
Do I have the answers? No. But I’ll keep talking about mental illness and hope some people listen. And act.