“There’s No Stigma”: A Response

Sorry. Stigma is alive.

DJ Jaffe, founder of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, wrote an article in the Huffington Post last week declaring that “there is no stigma to having a mental illness.” I am not in agreement with Jaffe’s statement that “stigma is dead,” and- even better- that “eliminating [it] was relatively easy.” When I did a little research on Mr. Jaffe, I found no evidence that he has ever had the pleasure of having a psychiatric illness and encountering stigma himself. So where exactly does he get the right to say that stigma is gone? Because unfortunately, a lot of us who actually live with mental illness still find stigma in places that we really need support: our jobs, our friends, even our families. I don’t believe that abolishing stigma is as easy as changing our thinking. Perhaps for the individual, that is a good process to go through and understand that he or she is not a leper for having a mental illness, and that they deserve as much love and support as someone going through cancer or any other disease. But I don’t know how well that works on a large scale. Jaffe also claims that awareness campaigns are “not only ineffective, but harmful.” He thinks we should stop focusing on awareness about a “non-existent stigma” and instead turn our efforts to changing policy. While I agree that some awareness campaigns are not doing the cause any favor with their wording, I think it’s a little drastic to stop raising awareness altogether. There are still many people who don’t have any or have very limited knowledge of mental illness- including medical personnel- and that needs to be addressed. I do agree that we need to refocus the awareness campaigns on what actually goes on with psychiatric patients instead of trying to make mental illness appear to be the cake walk it most certainly is not. Perhaps focusing more on making the public aware of signs and symptoms and how to access treatment would be more beneficial than trying to gloss it over and make mental illness appear friendly, the way some campaigns currently are. One campaign, called No Kidding, Me Too! (nkm2.org) goes so far as saying it wants to make having mental illness “cool and sexy.” Cool and sexy?? Get serious.

Jaffe claims that stigma is gone, and that all we are facing now is prejudice and discrimination. That we should be focusing on gaining more rights for people with mental illness. Of course, we should never stop fighting for our rights. But I think he’s got it a little backwards. Isn’t discrimination simply the way stigma manifests in society? Stigma isn’t just a way of thinking, it’s a way of behaving, a way of treating people as if they’re different. Being stigmatized is to be outcast, branded a pariah. To be stigmatized is to be looked at as something less than you are, something outside of who you are- to not be seen for who you are at all. It is a form of prejudice, where you are labeled and categorized before being known, without having the chance to be known. Once someone has placed a stigma on you, it is extraordinarily difficult to reverse their thinking or their view of you. Most of the time, it’s easier to walk away than to waste time trying to change their minds. I have lost jobs and opportunities because of my history of mental illness. I was once interviewing for a position as a nanny and even though I had not engaged in self-harm for over three years (and I am an excellent caregiver), once the mother asked about the scars on my arms that was the last I heard of her. I can understand that, but I can also be angry about it, because that was not the only time it happened. I know many other people with very similar stories who have lost jobs and relationships over their issues with mental illness.

That, to me, is the definition of stigma.

Sometimes it does boggle my mind that with all of the education and publicity about mental illness and with celebrities coming forth to say they suffer from these diseases, the general public is not more understanding. But as I wrote in one of  my former articles, there is something about a mental illness that disturbs people in a way that physical illness does not. The brain, the mind, is the seat of the soul. When something breaches that, it can be extremely unsettling to watch. You see that the self you once thought inviolable is not necessarily so. I get why that would freak people out in a way that something like pneumonia wouldn’t. However, that does not give anyone the right to treat a person with a psychiatric illness as if they are ignoble. The majority of people with mental illness, when treated properly, are extremely high functioning. You would not know that I have bipolar unless I told you. You would not know that I nearly died from anorexia and bulimia, that I was once crippled by posttraumatic stress disorder. Unless you look closely you don’t really see the faded scars on my arms from years of self-inflicted wounds. I take my medication as prescribed, I see my therapist when needed, and I eat like a normal person. I go to school and I work and I write and I live. This is how it is for many people with mental illness. We take our meds and see our shrinks and go about our days, and we are perfectly capable of anything that someone without mental illness is capable of.

Obviously, it is not this way for everyone. There are many others who suffer greatly every day, who struggle because they cannot afford treatment or because treatment is ineffective. There are people who need intensive care for most of their lives due to the severity of their disease. And there are, sadly, people who die from mental illness. As Jaffe said, on one of the few points I agree with, we should put our efforts into changing public policies that further victimize and discriminate against people who are already suffering through mental illness, especially those policies that force patients to become suicidal or dangerous before qualifying for treatment. But saying that stigma is nonexistent does not serve anyone. It is simply ignoring the reality that those with mental illness encounter every day. And haven’t we done that enough?

© Sarah Henderson 2011


About writingforrecovery

Sarah is a writer and poet who speaks out about issues that make people uncomfortable. Sarah advocates for causes such a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and mental illness, and often speaks openly about her own experiences. She is determined to abolish the stigma associated with these issues and believes that it starts with people telling their stories, so she started a blog called Writing for Recovery where people can do just that. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and is currently at work on her fourth. She is convinced that there's a novel somewhere in her, and occasionally picks at the chapters so far. View all posts by writingforrecovery

4 responses to ““There’s No Stigma”: A Response

  • DJ Jaffe

    Thank you for a thoughtful and well-written piece. Stigma is a “mark of shame or disgrace”. I do not believe having a mental illness is a “mark of shame or disgrace”. Apparently, you do. I would ask: If mental illness is a mark of shame or disgrace, how can any public service announcement change that? If it is a reality, than advertise all you want and it is still a reality. OTOH, if, as I believe, mental illnesses are no-fault biological illnesses like any other, and not a ‘mark of shame or disgrace’ then no public campaign is needed. Which is it? Is it a mark of shame or disgrace or not? I would argue what you experienced(others ‘stigmatizing’ you) is ignorance. By talking openly and honestly about our own experiences, we can change that. But let’s not blame others. All the best. Thanks again for your comments

    • writingforrecovery

      I do not personally believe that having a mental illness is shameful or disgraceful. As you can see from my blog here, I have no problem discussing my own experiences with mental illness and the fact that I am a psychiatric patient. As a nursing student and the daughter of a psychiatric nurse, I understand better than most that mental illnesses are, as you said, no-fault biological illnesses. I am not ashamed to have one nor do I believe anyone else should be. Unfortunately, not everyone that I encounter thinks the same way. And I would agree with you that stigma, like prejudice, arises from ignorance and fear. At this point, we might just be arguing semantics. We will have to agree to disagree on this issue, particularly since- correct me if I’m wrong- you will never be able to understand stigma from the viewpoint of someone who actually suffers from mental illness. I’m afraid that’s a unique perspective you can only gain by living it. Unless, of course, you have been a psychiatric patient in the past, in which case I’m wondering why you haven’t discussed your personal experiences. Were you perhaps afraid of stigma?

  • Jess

    Thank you for sharing. I agree that stigma is alive and well. I wrote a paper on the perceptions of the mentally ill with bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. In my experiment, there was obvious stigma attributed to those with mental illness. My study was done in 2006. Unfortunately, stigma is still alive and well.

    Personally, I am not ashamed of my mental illness. I have come to accept it, and I feel like I need to advocate for those with mental illness. I am studying to be a licensed professional counselor, specializing in the treatment of those with mood disorders.

    Thanks for this article; every little bit helps for readers to start to understand what is going on.

    Take care,

    • writingforrecovery

      Thank you! I really appreciate the validation. I thought DJ Jaffe’s article was ignorant and blind. He clearly has no idea what it’s like to really live with mental illness. If he does, why isn’t he talking about it? Could it be stigma? If so, that completely negates his entire position. Either he’s ignorant and can never really understand what it’s like to be mentally ill, or he’s a hypocrite for not speaking on his own experience. Whatever.

      Good for you for becoming a counselor; I hope to do that in the future too. We sure as hell need them! Take care, Sarah

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