Stigma and Mental Health
Although some say that stigma against mental health is diminishing, the reality is that it is still a huge problem. It comes in so many forms that it’s hard to narrow it down for this post.
I think in America right now the issue of mental health is a big thing after the recent Newtown Shooting. People seem to be racing to diagnose the shooter in the media, even though none of these clinicians have met him. Perhaps thinking that there is a tangible reason behind such a tragedy makes people feel more comfortable - as if , “Oh, he’s mentally ill, that makes more sense now”. (I want to stress that I’ve not heard anyone say that, I can only imagine that thought has crossed SOME individuals’ minds).
I’m also not saying that the shooter wasn’t mentally ill. I am saying that because he is mentally ill doesn’t mean it was the reason he went on a shooting spree.
There is a HUGE assumption that people with mental health problems are more violent and dangerous than healthy individuals. This is simply not true: social violence is not a feature of a mental illness.
Of course, it is important that if people have a mental health disorder and exhibit violent tendencies, then they should be treated and cared for appropriately. However, it is not appropriate is to assume that because someone is mentally ill, that they will be more likely to commit a crime. Or that if someone commits a crime or violent act that it stemmed from a mental illness.
Perfectly healthy individuals commit atrocious acts all the time, yet the media sensationalises the cases where the mentally ill are involved. Drawing links between mental health and mass shootings is unfounded and stigmatising, but this doesn’t seem to matter sometimes unfortunately.
The negative outcomes of such stigma can be far reaching. I saw one report that said the shooter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and one that said he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Obviously, I don’t know the level of truth behind either diagnosis, but then again neither will the hundreds of people reading such news stories.
What then happens to all the individuals who suffer from one of these diseases now, after some of the media have essentially implied that illnesses such as these leads to mass shootings? Straight away, a negative association is attached to these people without them even doing anything, which I think everyone can agree is not fair.
Stigma is not just a problem with these high profile cases or highly wrote about disorders. People every day suffer from mental illness - 1 in 5 in the UK according to the NHS records - and feel that they can’t talk about it due to the stigma they might face. One of the links posted below states that only 1 in 500 people felt comfortable being open about their mental health, which is really sad.
I’m not writing this post to stir up any arguments with people whose beliefs are different than mine. I’m writing it because I’ve been reading so much lately about this Newtown shooting and I do feel quite strongly about the issue of stigma in mental health, being a psychologist (well, nearly a psychologist - 6 months away!).
Here are some links to read if you are interested.
Newtown shootings underscore how confused we are about mental illness and violence
Mental Health Stigma - Mixed Signals
Secret Suffering as mental health stigma silences anxious voices