The Stigma of Mental Illness: What Are We Afraid Of?

I consider myself a passionate person.  For causes, and people.  For my family, and friends.  And, about life.


I know I am also an emotional person.  That is, I often follow my heart.  People who know me, know that I tend to wear it on my sleeve.  I give the best of me through my heart.  I live life from the heart.  And, while I am also cognitive in my thinking and decision making, I tend to lead with my heart.

That said, why do we still stigmatize people with mental illness?  What are we afraid of?  This is a topic, no, a cause in which I get deeply passionate and emotional about.  The fact that it still exists.  Actually, not only does it exist, it’s not getting any better, despite all the education and awareness devoted to it.


While it’s true that more of us do understand that mental illness is caused by brain biology, it’s our attitude towards people with mental illness that continues to perpetuate, even deepen the stigmatization.


A distinguised professor leading groundbreaking research on stigma has said,


“There’s something about the mind that people have a difficult reaction to than body affliction.”


Here’s my feeling.  Attitude is a choice, in everything we do and towards people we interact with.  Dozens of things we do or decide on everyday is influenced by attitude.  And guess what?  How people treat us back is also influenced by our attitude.


Attitude is something we control.


It puzzles me.  Aren’t we (shouldn’t we be) all in this world to help each other?  What happened to treat others the way we want to be treated?  Or, there but for the grace of God…….. (intended as a secular, not a religious statement).


What are we afraid of?  Really.


Here’s a global challenge.  Let’s end stigma.  Right now.


Two solutions.  There are more, but, let’s start with these.


Change our focus.  Direct our attention (and our heart) not just on the condition, but, on the individual themselves.  Let’s humanize mental illness.  Do we not respect our fellow humanity enough to do this?  Does a health condition determine whether we show dignity or not?


Read this article, “The Reality of Mental Illness“.  Leslie Purdie, a fourth-year cultural anthropology major, writes about growing up, diagnosed, and living with a mental illness.  It is incredibly poignant, powerful, and personal.  On day to day life,


“We work hard to conceal our unpredictable and unstable brains for fear of being thought of as “lazy”, “self-indulgent”, and “crazy”.  Worst of all, should we reveal an ounce of weakness, we might be told – despite our good grades, resilience, and other accomplishments – that we “just aren’t cut out for the university life.”


And, about judgment, she writes,


“You walk past us on campus all the time……If you met me, you would have no idea.  I’m intelligent, vivacious, strong, stubborn, and tender-hearted.  At first glance, I am anything but mentally ill.  Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll realize that everyone has a story.”


If her story does not humanize this illness and inspire the attitude shift they deserve, than it is an indictment on all of us. 


Here is the second solution.  Change the conversation.  More than eight years ago at a local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) conference, I met Alison Malmon, then the 22 year-old Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds.  She was the keynote.  Here’s something she said that evening that both struck me, and stuck with me:


“It will be my generation that will change the conversation about stigma and mental illness.  We can end the stigma.”




Alison’s generation grew up a time when the diagnosis of mental health disorders in children and youth, and the medications so often prescribed, proliferated (Author’s Note: whether we over diagnosed or over prescribed is a conversation for another time.  A growing body of research says we have).  She would tell me that in high school, so many friends had depression, ADHD, bipolar (mood) disorder, or some mental health diagnosis and taking medication that they talked openly and easily about it.


There was no judgment, no prejudice, or discrimination.  They didn’t see a classmate with a condition, they simply saw their classmate. 


A lesson for all of us on the respect for our fellow humanity.  And, while new research suggests that children and youth are experiencing increasing stigma, I believe Alison’s and Leslie’s generation and the one coming up behind it can teach all of us how to change our attitude and the conversation.


Let’s be afraid no more.  Let’s do the right thing.  Let’s end the stigma of mental illness.  Now.

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