Stigma regarding mental illness or mental health issues has long been a problem in the psychiatric community. This stigma presents itself in different ways.
Those with mental health issues may be incorrectly perceived as dangerous or unpredictable. Sometimes mental health issues are wrongly thought to be a form of weakness or that sufferers of mental illness have some choice or control over their symptoms.
“Stigma makes community and health decision-makers see people with mental illness with low regard, resulting in reluctance to invest resources into mental health care,” said a 2007 article published in the medical journal The Lancet. The Lancet article adds that the stigma can lower self-esteem and self-confidence of those with mental health issues.
A shifting landscape
While the stigma regarding mental health is obviously damaging, Marshfield Clinic Psychologist Dr. Patricia Ellis said attitudes are changing.
“I think it’s getting better as it’s been shown that mental illness is biological in nature,” Dr. Ellis said. “For a long time, it was invisible. People didn’t understand it and didn’t see it as a true medical condition.”
However, the stigma still exists, and Dr. Ellis thinks a misunderstanding in the general public about mental health persists.
“Everybody has mental health. It’s finding balance between your emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual factors,” Dr. Ellis said. “If those factors get out of balance, anybody can have mental health problems. Mental health exists on a continuum.”
As education surrounding mental health has improved, Dr. Ellis said so has the perception of people struggling with mental illness. Even the language we use, saying a person “has depression” rather than saying a person “is depressed” is an important progression.
“I think that language change made some difference,” Dr. Ellis said. “People started seeing the whole person and not just their mental illness.”
Seeing the whole person has even helped mental health professionals adjust the way they treat patients, Dr. Ellis said. Instead of solely medicating, there is now a concerted effort to see the whole person, their strengths as an individual, and how those strengths can be tapped to help the patient cope with their mental illness.
Be an advocate
Dr. Ellis urged people to be aware of the stigma surrounding mental health and the language we use to talk about mental health.
“Be an advocate. Look at the way you view mental health and your own behavior so you can change it if needed,” Dr. Ellis said. “That way, you can educate others and help reduce the stigma.”