‘Dangerous and Scary’: The Stigma of Mental Illness

Being diagnosed with a serious mental illness and being diagnosed with cancer are as bad as each other, according to just over half of British adults. A similar proportion describes people with mental illness as dangerous or scary.

The Priory Group report, ‘A Crying Shame’, reveals that 72% of adults in Great Britain believe that there is a stigma associated with having a mental illness. It seems that people suffering from psychological discomfort, when seeking help, have to cope with terror of the diagnosis coupled with shame, guilt, and fears of a loss of status and opportunities, discrimination at work etc. These feelings, which are soundly based in reality, are bound to affect treatment outcome — being suddenly designated by society to live in a kind of shadowland, inhabited by weak, crazy, dangerous losers, would be enough to create a condition of severe mental discomfort in a perfectly healthy person. Intuiting this, over half of British adults (52%) agree that being diagnosed with a serious mental illness and being diagnosed with cancer are as bad as each other.

It seems that the media are no help in educating the public, according to 77% of adults. The fact that so many describe people with mental illness as unpredictable (79%), dangerous (50%) and scary (49%) seems to me to be directly related to sensationalist and disproportionate coverage of attacks by mentally ill people, whereas in fact, as the Priory report points out, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Such crimes do not make for juicy stories, as if the life of a mentally ill person were already damaged goods.

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The Priory Group point out that susceptibility to mental illness is part of being human, that any of us irrespective of age, sex, status, region, religion, race or intelligence may at some point in their lives suffer from one. From this we can imagine that people’s highly judgmental attitude stems from fear that they may one day find themselves ‘on the other side’ of the great divide between the sane and the mad. They want to feel safer and stronger in their own position, and do so by stigmatising others. The Priory Group state that “Mental illnesses are real illnesses, just like cancer, diabetes or arthritis”.

I am not so sure that the model in which mental problems are diagnosed as illnesses is entirely correct or helpful. But there are clearly phenomena such as dissociation or psychotic episodes which are experienced as sudden onslaughts suffered by the person involved, and which can respond to medication. I know from my work that for every client who finds a label like ‘depression’ an unhelpful label for normal feelings provoked by life situations, there is another client who finds the division between ‘me’ and ‘my problem’ to be helpful. And I do know that the terror with which new clients often come to me, asking if they are ill, has so many questions behind it, the major one being am I not normal, not like everyone else? Will I spend the rest of my life in isolation? And often these people are suffering not from any recognisable condition but from loneliness, social anxiety, panic, from normal human emotions, which they assume are incurable illnesses.

Whether mental distress is a survival strategy on some level undertaken by someone in order to deal with their whole situation, which includes economic and social factors, genes, upbringing, relationships, loss, trauma, abuse, etc, or whether it is a randomly occurring or genetically determined illness, at the end of the day we need not only to treat ‘these people’ with respect but see that there is no divide, that we are all dealing with our lives, which are all composed of various challenges and changes, that we are all subject to random events and genetic detremination to some extent, and we all have irrational thoughts and intolerable emotions from time to time.

The media should start to tell more stories about those who live with their conditions, those who recover, and also about those who suffer quite unnecessary discrmination or violence at the hands of the ‘well’, so that the great divide disappears and it becomes clear that we are all capable of being ‘dangerous’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘scary’, all capable of finding strategies to deal with this, and all capable of compassion.

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