by Aubrey Boggs, CMWN Intern
While it can be easy to only see the personal effects of stigma, I know I’ve felt ashamed, unheard, and less valuable because of both public stigma and internalized stigma, it is worth acknowledging the wider, albeit less obvious, ways in which stigma informs our societal norms and eventually, our policy and systems.
One example is the pervasive, and incorrect, assumption that individuals with mental health conditions are more likely to be violent than others. Despite evidence to the contrary, most notably the evidence showing that individuals with mental health conditions are “no more likely” than the general population to be violent (mentalhealth.gov), and in fact individuals with mental health conditions “have victimization rates 65% to 130% higher than those of the general population” (Metzel & MacLeish, 2015, p. 242), which means the individuals being indirectly blamed, through stigma, for the majority of violent acts are often the very people being victimized in those violent acts.
Too often, however, this rhetoric around violence and mental health, however misinformed, ends up becoming policy and limits the rights of individuals with mental health conditions along with contributing to further stigma and discrimination. This often shows up most frequently in debates about gun violence, and legislation around that violence, where individuals with mental health conditions become a convenient scapegoat for the real issues. The danger of allowing misinformation to be written into legislation is larger than stigma, it is this kind of policy that furthers the higher rates of violence and discrimination towards, and systematic disenfranchisement of, individuals with mental health conditions. Policy based on stigma is not limited to gun laws, that same stigma affects access to healthcare and jobs, and it gives people fuel to discriminate against individuals with mental health conditions.
There is hope, however, that we can reduce stigma, save lives, and change harmful policy. Time to Change, an anti-stigma campaign in England, found that decreased stigma affected how likely a person was to see their regular doctor or talk to someone about their mental health condition. The decrease in stigma showed, as well, that people were more willing to work with, continue relationships with, or to live with or near a person with mental health conditions (time-to-change.org.uk) than they had been previously. This is only one example that shows how actively fighting that stigma can decrease the negative effects of it. If we challenge and correct the misinformation spread by stigma we can reach individuals who will vote on mental health policy, who may need support for their own mental health condition but have been too afraid to reach out, and who may be our family, friends, neighbors, bosses, law enforcement professionals, and our healthcare professionals. No one benefits from the stigma around mental health, but we can all fight that stigma and create a better world for our communities and ourselves.
(n.d.). Mental health myths and facts. Retrieved from MentalHealth.gov, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website: https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/
Metzl, J. M., & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental illness, mass shootings, and the politics of american firearms. American Journal of Public Health, 105(2), 240-249. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302242
(n.d.). National attitudes to mental illness 2014–2015. Retrieved from Time to Change website: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/sites/default/files/Attitudes_Infographic_update5.pdf