Mental illness awareness week: Battling the stigma of mental illness


Prejudiced beliefs that were once considered a normal part of life have been abandoned as people became more humane and informed. Many countries around the world have made strides in advocating for equal rights among all demographics. However, mental illness, it seems, is one of the last subjects up for discussion. Research points to a deeply-rooted stigma attached to mental illness, partially taught, partially due to ignorance and fear.

Studies have suggested that prejudice toward people with mental illness is common. A study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health at Indiana and Columbia University’s analyzed the responses of Americans over a ten-year period to determine if attitudes toward mental illness had changed. The study included face-to-face interviews and a questionnaire that followed a hypothetical vignette of a person with mental illness.

According to the study, in 2006, 67 percent of people linked depression to neurobiological causes as opposed to only 54 percent in 1996. Despite more acceptance of a neurobiological source for the disease, rejection of the person portrayed in the scenario increased. Indiana University sociologist Bernice Pescosolido believes “prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. aren’t moving.”

According to Graham C.L. Davey, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, historically, people with mental illness have been treated cruelly due to incorrect perceptions that they may become violent or display unpredictable behavior. Research presented in The Psychodynamics of Abnormal Behavior” indicates that, in the Middle Ages, the church was a prominent influence and people believed that the body was ruled by the soul. If a person behaved in a manner not in accordance with the church, the belief was that the individual’s soul was corrupted by more sinister influences.

Unfavorable developments were linked to the devil and favorable events to God. At that time, it seemed logical that any mental illness was a result of possession by the devil. It was believed that other causes included witchcraft, mass hysteria and melancholy. Treatments for mental illness in the Middle Ages included exorcism and shaving scalp hair in the form of a cross. If demonic possession was suspected, the person would be immersed in hot water or exposed to sulphur fumes to coax the demon out.

The media plays a part in continuing the stigma against the mentally ill by negative stereotypes portrayed in movies in which perpetrators of violence are often depicted as mentally ill. When mass shootings occur in the United States, the term “mentally ill” is often bandied about by TV anchors with no particular illness being mentioned and no on-screen consultation with the station’s medical correspondent.

A study conducted by North Carolina State University and others revealed that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. “We hear about the link between violence and mental illness in the news, and we wanted to look not only at the notion that the mentally ill are a danger to others, but the possibility that they are also in danger,” says Dr. Sarah Desmarais, lead author of the study.

Any person at any time can develop a mental illness. If you or a loved one need information about mental illness and mental health treatment please call the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline at any time.


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