Mental illnesses refer to the wide range of conditions that influence our mood, thinking, and behavior in the long term. Many efforts are made in the medical field to help mentally ill patients overcome their conditions. Unfortunately, some factors that hinder their therapeutic progress still exist today.

One of the major factors is known as stigma. If you are not familiar with the word it is worthy to mention that the Greeks conceived the term “stigma” to refer to any bodily signs designated to show any unpleasant or eerie feature. The word “stigma” was meant to point out whatever was wrong about its bearer; slaves, criminals, traitors, etc would usually bear the sign and were later to be avoided in social gatherings and public spaces.

Today, the term is widely used in something like the original sense. However, it is applied more to the “blemishes” of an individual’s character or personality rather than to the bodily evidence of it.

What is the Impact of Stigma?

The impact of stigma is twofold. The first being self-stigma, which refers to the process in which a person with a mental illness, agrees with the society’s stereotypes by applying them to the self. The second impact is public stigma, which refers to the negative stereotypes, that a society or a group of people have towards people with mental health problems. Those stereotypes would be defining, thus reducing the person to their mental illness. This action will lead to change of behavior from friends, colleagues, family, etc towards the individual with mental health problems.

In this article, the focus would be on the latter impact of stigma: public stigma.

In the Handbook of Social Cognition public stigma entails three components which are: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. One component eventually leads to another.

1. Stereotypes

Stereotypes are the popular belief among society about a particular group of people, in this case, about people with mental illness. For example, it can be seen in the reactions of society towards untreated visible symptoms of mental illness. This way, (labels such as dangerousness, craziness, weirdness, etc.) connects the patient to a set of undesirable characteristics that are fundamentally dismissed by the general public. This process gives rise to separation, as no society wants to be associated with such attributes. In this manner, various leveled classifications are made separating the “stereotyped” from the “norm.”

 2. Prejudice

Once the stereotype is popularized, a society can either accept or reject it. For example, many can cite stereotypes about different racial groups but do not agree that the stereotypes are valid. Because prejudices are usually the results of misconceptions about mental illness, people who are prejudiced endorse negative stereotypes. This behavior creates different responses. The latter could be seen in the forms of negative emotional reactions such as fear, or physical reactions like violence, or alternatively avoidance.

In short, prejudice against mentally ill people happens when society agrees upon the stereotypes and eventually leads to different reactions.

3.   Discrimination:

In general, discrimination is the unjust treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex. In our context, discrimination is the behavioral response or reaction to prejudice.

The reaction may be violent, or subtle. The lexicon used to describe people with mental illness is in itself discriminatory and not to mention obscene. Although, the stigma of mental illness does not derive from the use of words and cannot be changed simply by changing the lexicon; people are often referred to as “Schizophrenic” rather than “Someone who has schizophrenia.” Or someone is said to be “depressive” instead of someone who “suffers from depression”.

Other forms of discrimination..

Other forms of discrimination can be found in public spaces. People with mental illness can be denied opportunities or treated as incompetent because of their mental illness. In a cross-sectional study conducted in 35 countries on discrimination in the workplace62.5% had anticipated and/or experienced discrimination in the work setting. In very highly developed countries, almost 60% of respondents had stopped themselves from applying for work, education, or training because of anticipated discrimination

All in all, the impact of public stigma may start from a stereotype that society typically agrees upon. It grows to render the members of said society prejudiced against people with mental health issues, and eventually discriminate against them. Society will thus view people with mental illness as incapable, irresponsible, violent, lacking willpower, difficult to manage, etc, and will deny them from major opportunities in their lives.

How Can We Change Public Stigma?

It may not be an overnight process, but it can definitely happen. The first important thing we must do is to educate ourselves. Educating members of society on the different mental health issues goes a long way. The awareness that might sprout from education, will undeniably lessen the impact of stigma.

Another helpful approach would be via in-contact. Stigma is further reduced when members of society meet individuals with mental illness in their everyday lives. Seeing those individuals holding down careers or living just as well as someone without mental illness, will eventually raise awareness in the community and ease their admissibility within the society. In addition, research has shown that a person who has contact with an individual with mental illness will less likely endorse stigma.

The stigma against people with mental illness is still evident in our societies’ different structures. We, at EMPWR, believe that the talk about stigma and ways to fight it is sorely needed to fully eliminate it.

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