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Zerrin Kurdak

Ms. Bradley
ENC 2135

The Stigma behind Mental Illness


Mental illness is a common health issue that affects hundreds of thousands of people
around the world. The psychology community works to educate the public on mental health and
provide services and support for those who need it. Psychologists and psychiatrists see patients
and help them figure out the best course of treatment. The prevalent issue in the psychology
community is the stigma behind mental illness. Ruby Wax spoke in a TED Talk to share her
personal struggle of how being diagnosed with a mental illness altered her life. Wax has publicly
been very open about her illness, hoping her story will help others who are experiencing similar
battles. As Wax said, Mental health problems are so common, it could be anyone. The trouble is
no one wants to talk about it (Films). The implications of mental illness have various aspects.
People with mental illnesses have been treated poorly throughout history by being
neglected, abandoned and shunned. Deviant behavior was blamed on demon possession and evil
spirits (Hinshaw, The Stigmatization 5). People were tortured and put to death if they were
thought to be linked to unholy spirits. The general public did not know a lot of accurate
information on mental illnesses, so they assumed the worst. Mental illness wasnt a popular topic
to talk about back in the day. People feared what they didnt know, and the concept of mental
health being impaired was hard to grasp. Those with illnesses were excluded from normal
societal activities and were avoided like the plague. This made the standard of living harder for

those with mental health issues. Being separated from society by an invisible wall is a situation
no one should have to experience.
Even though people have struggled with mental illnesses throughout history, the public
still views those with mental health issues with fear, pity and judgement (Hinshaw, The Mark
3). Those who suffer from a mental illness are judged, discriminated against, and are labelled as
weak or violent. Due to the discrimination many people with an illness withdraw from all but
close friends and family members, destroying their self-esteem and causing social interactions to
be uncomfortable. Stereotypes of the mentally ill have grown stronger over the years, as has the
distance between those with mental illnesses and those without (Thoits 4).
The stigma, while cruel, can be explained by a couple of factors. The discrimination is
driven by American culture and society, drawing from the inability to grasp situations the public
doesnt understand. Christina Funk gave her opinion on the matter. People tend to judge
situations they dont understand, and they dont take the initiative to learn more about them
(Funk). Most people dont put in the extra effort it takes to uncover the truth behind mental
illness. Issues with mental health are not talked about in a manner of understanding and
sympathy. However, there are more people that struggle with mental illnesses than one would
think. Christina Funk said, There are even more people that havent been diagnosed because
theyre too ashamed of how they feel to seek help (Funk).
Another factor contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness is that many people
on trial plead mentally ill in order to receive a less harsh sentence. The Insanity Defense states:
A defense in which a person can be found not guilty, or not responsible, for a crime because, at
the time of the crime, the accused was unable to differentiate between right and wrong, based on
the fact that the accused suffers from mental illnesses or mental defect (Hinshaw, The Mark

2). Many criminals on trial try to prove they are mentally ill when they are not. They would
rather receive the sentence of being sent to a psychiatric ward than to a prison. This disgraces the
whole point of the Insanity Defense, which was made to protect those with mental illnesses.
If people perceive those with the illness to be a threat, they might try to avoid them in
order to feel safe and secure. However, this is a form of rejection that can lead to increased levels
of fear and ignorance (Hinshaw, The Mark 7). The discrimination that results from the stigma
can be damaging. Some people with mental illnesses internalize the stigma, which can have
harmful results and affect the way they behave as a result. The overall effects of the stigma can
be detrimental to ones health. Discrimination can cause a relapse in ones progress of recovery,
especially since societys first instinct is to distance those who are different from others. This
intentional exclusion can lead to disparities in housing, education, employment, health care and
income (Chan 7). Those with mental illnesses are not given the same opportunities as those
without an illness. For instance, it is incredibly challenging for one with a serious mental illness
to find a well-paying job. People with mental illnesses have been stereotyped to be insane or
mad, which can serve to provide justification for limiting people with these health problems. It is
impossible and cruel to think that society can put the mentally ill in a box and keep them hidden
from the rest of the world. Yet this is how many people have viewed those affected over the
years. It is difficult to have society accept those with mental illnesses as normal human beings
that are no different from the rest of the world.
One stereotype of the mentally ill is known as benevolence, assuming those with mental
illnesses are like children who need an adult figure to make decisions for them. Someone takes
on an authoritative role over the person with the mental illness because they assume the person is
incapable of being independent. This stereotype believes those with mental health issues are

helpless and in need of caregivers. This could lead to them being seen as a drain on social
resources, which can cause an increase in the stigmatization. A second stereotype assumes those
with mental illnesses are violent and unpredictable. Some people fear them as a result, making
the stigma stronger as they try to avoid the mentally ill at all costs (Thoits 3). Another stereotype
is blame. This is when those with mental health issues feel responsible for their illness, leading to
them believing they are inferior or weak.
Stephen Hinshaw says, The truth is that only a small subgroup of people with mental
illnesses are likely to be violent but the risk of being victimized by violent crime is far greater
in people with serious mental disorders than in the general population (The Mark 4). People
with mental illnesses have a lot more to fear than someone who fears the mentally ill does. They
are constantly being watched but not spoken to, making them feel like a criminal. The media
bolsters the stigma surrounding mental illness by presenting narrow minded stories (Byrne 6).
They take the information they want to use to draw attention, leaving out critical details that
could change someones perspective. Christina funk said, They [the media] often take only one
line out of a bunch of research that doesnt make sense without the background knowledge. This
causes people to get the wrong idea (Funk). This technique is unfair and unjust. The media
sneaks around the truth, not caring if they sway how people feel about the issue.
The media emphasizes the violent nature of those with mental illnesses for the sake of
entertainment. Television shows, commercials, advertisements, etc. portray the issue with
disrespect and often give misinformation. The public sees only what is advertised and draws
conclusions based off of the information given. Very few people research further into whether the
information is actually accurate or scientifically proven. Viewers see only the differences
between them and those who have mental illnesses, creating a large gap between the two parties.

This can lead to people fearing the mentally ill if theyve never interacted with someone with a
mental illness. The media tries to sell the story that those with mental illnesses are unstable and a
danger to society. While there can be negative implications, attention in general is still a positive
step in bringing awareness to the issue of mental illness (Wahl 5). The public is slowly educated
as the topic is talked about more and more.
In order to remain safe from judgement, service centers have to be anonymous. People
feel unsafe seeking treatment for potential mental illnesses because they fear being stereotyped,
judged or discriminated against. For instance, if one discovers their friend has an appointment
with a therapist they tend to be curious as to why. The person might assume there is something
wrong with their friend, questioning their sanity. Judging situations that one does not know
anything about is a really common hole that many find themselves in. There are also many
anonymous crisis hotlines available for those who need support immediately (Byrne 4). They
vary from dealing with abuse to helping those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Chat
rooms online were created for people who choose not to meet with someone in person. This
allows people to feel safe behind a computer screen while getting support from a trained
specialist. However, these resources can only go so far to help someone in need. Treatment needs
to be constant and personal in order to work at its full potential. It is discouraging that those who
struggle with mental illnesses feel the need to hide their secret from those around them. Hiding
the symptoms of the illness could prevent them from progressing in their journey of recovery.
Some people avoid seeking professional help in order to avoid being labelled. One half
to two thirds of individuals who would benefit from psychiatric services choose not to look into
getting treated (Understanding and Influencing 5). They are too afraid of what a diagnosis
would imply, potentially marking them with a label. As Christina Funk said, People see them

[those diagnosed] as their mental illness almost as if theyre defined by it. They start to lose
sight of the fact that theyre people too. For instance, someone who has depression isnt labelled
as always being depressed. Theyre experiencing depression. Its a health issue, not their
identity (Funk). People fear seeking professional help because labels have negative
connotations associated with them.
The public often places blame on the family for their relatives illness. The family might
feel shame, which can lead to them withdrawing from neighbors and acquaintances. Parents of
those diagnosed are frequently blamed for somehow initiating the start of the mental illness and
are accused of not doing enough to avoid the health issue (Byrne 5). Studies show that parents of
children with mental illnesses are reluctant to enroll their kids in activities outside of the
household because theyre afraid they will be stigmatized (Chan 2).
The family takes on the burden of being stigmatized along with the member who has the
mental illness. They go through the journey with their loved one, trying to look out for them
while also trying to take care of themselves (Funk). Studies have found that while both mental
and physical illnesses take a toll on the family, mental illness has been proven to have more of a
stigma attached to it. Families reported feeling less supported if they had a loved one that was
diagnosed with a mental illness, and they said it was challenging to maintain normal
relationships with friends and neighbors after the diagnosis (Hinshaw, The Stigmatization 5). If
a person with a mental illness shows signs of growth in recovery, having a social circle that
supports them only helps them rise to be successful in their progress of recovery. Shaming family
members of those affected can cause a relapse in ones mental illness. Family members are often
stigmatized by association, discouraging them when they need strength the most (Hinshaw, The
Stigmatization 2). On the flip side, many families are supported because people are aware that

others can be exclusive and judgmental. The situation is tough and often takes a major toll on
family members, as well as the one with the mental illness.
There are three main strategies for resisting the stigma: contact, education, and protest
(Larson 1). Contact involves someone telling their story of how they overcame their mental
illness. They share how damaging the stigma is and what it was like to struggle with the illness.
Larson said, Research has shown that single sessions of contact change prejudice and diminish
discrimination (3). Education entails advertisements, newsletters, and media campaigns that
give information on different types of mental illnesses. This technique works to promote facts
instead of myths about mental illness. Protest tackles issues and false information brought up by
public figures (Understanding and Influencing 5). Stigma change works best when specific
groups are targeted especially groups with power or authority (Larson 3). For instance, health
care providers and police officers often have contact with people with mental illnesses. These
authority figures have perceptions that directly affect the diagnosed.
The psychology community has continuously used many efforts to communicate the issue
of the stigma behind mental illness. Multiple websites have been promoted in order to educate a
wide audience. NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, is one of Americas largest mental
health organizations that works to provide better lives for those struggling with mental illnesses
(Byrne 5). They are partnered with many communities to spread support and provide education.
The organization has a website that promotes their ability to educate, advocate, and listen. There
are many similar websites that educate the public and offer services for those in need. This genre
of communication gives many people the opportunity to expand their knowledge on the issue.
The option of a website allows those who view the page to avoid feeling pressured to believe a

certain way. However, the organizations cannot force people to look at their pages to begin the
process of becoming educated.
B4Stage4 is another popular campaign that advocates treating mental illness as soon as
possible (Byrne 4). The campaign is founded on the basis that when someone has cancer or a
heart disease, treatment begins right away to try to prevent the spread of the disease early on.
Professionals try to reverse the symptoms right away, and there is no doubt that the illness is
serious. The psychology community believes the public should treat mental illness this way as
well.
As Peter Byrne said, Stigma is hopelessness, resulting in helplessness (4). The
discrimination and stereotypes that accompany mental illness put a huge burden on those with
mental health issues, as well as those supporting the diagnosed. The stigma draws from the
publics inability and unwillingness to understand the concept of mental illness. The psychology
community has faithfully worked to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness by
providing resources to accommodate many people. Various organizations sponsor public
education campaigns to raise awareness for different aspects of mental health. The world is
progressively adopting a new, more forgiving understanding of mental illness.

Works Cited
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Stigma of Mental Illness and Ways of Diminishing It | BJPsych Advances. Web. 06 Oct.
2015.
Chan, Sally Wai-Chi. "Stigma in Mental Illness: A Continuing Concern." EBSCOhost. EContent
Management Pty Ltd, 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.
Films, Media Group, the Humanities Films for, and L. L. C. TED Conferences. TEDTalks Ruby
Wax - what's so Funny about Mental Illness? New York, N.Y: Films Media Group.
Funk, Christina. Personal interview. 6 October 2015.
Hinshaw, Stephen P. The Stigmatization of Mental Illness in Children and Parents:
Developmental Issues, Family Concerns, and Research Needs. Journal of Child
Psychology and Psychiatry Volume 46, Issue 7, Article 3. May 2005. Web. 02 Oct. 2015.
Hinshaw, Stephen P. and Inc ebrary. The Mark of Shame Stigma of Mental Illness and an
Agenda for Change. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print. 04 Oct.
2015.
Larson, Jon E., and Patrick Corrigan. "The Stigma of Families with Mental Illness." Academic
Psychiatry 32.2 (2008): 87-91. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.
Thoits, Peggy A. "Resisting the Stigma of Mental Illness." Social Psychology Quarterly.
American Sociological Association, 2011. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

"Understanding and Influencing the Stigma of Mental Illness." EBSCOhost. Journal of


Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 06 Oct. 2015.
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