Mental illness has always been a difficult subject for many people to talk about. In ancient times, mental illness was shrouded in mystery and superstition. Beginning in the 19th century, public attitudes shifted between religious and eugenic interpretations. These also informed the treatment approaches for mental conditions. Today, mental attitudes have softened somewhat, but destructive ideas still promote a stigma around mental illness.
The stigma surrounding mental illness can take many forms, and most are harmful for people with a condition. Families may suffer from poorly informed public attitudes too. The need for open, honest dialog about mental illness, especially for those seeking treatment, is still a pressing issue.
Mental Attitudes in the Past
In the ancient world, mental illness was viewed as something between frightening and divinely inspired. Julius Caesar reportedly had epilepsy, which was regarded as divine intervention and which Caesar used in his political career. The Gospels describe how Jesus cast demons out of “madmen” and into swine, which were then stampeded over a cliff. These two approaches were probably typical of the mental attitudes of people in the ancient world.
By the late Victorian era, perceptions of mental illness had shifted from the divinity-versus-curse model to one of amusement. It was common for asylums of the time to charge the public an admission fee to gawk at mentally ill inmates. Attitudes shifted again in the 20th century, when the medical model for understanding mental illness developed. For about the last hundred years, mental illness has been seen as a medical issue just like any bodily disease. While this is certainly more humane than previous attitudes, treating mental illness as a disease also has its issues.
Mental Health by the Numbers
The group of conditions recognized as mental illnesses affect a huge number of people. Nearly one in five Americans, or just under 52 million, has some form of mental illness. These range in severity from mild depression to disabling schizophrenia. Despite the high numbers, many people still have moralistic attitudes toward those with mental illnesses. And while these conditions are generally no longer seen as bad, they still cause a significant amount of fear.
Much of the fear surrounding mental illness is well-intentioned, centering on legitimate concerns about self-harm. A major cross-sectional research project found that most Americans view people with mental illness as dangerous to themselves or others. Paradoxically, this occurs at a time when 47% of Americans believe they’ve had at least one bout with mental illness and when 90% have the opinion that mental and physical health are equally important.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
The stigma associated with public opinions on mental illness can be damaging. Due to the fear that mentally ill people will hurt themselves or others, they’re often punished for asking for help. Police agencies, for example, often have mental health crisis lines that many officers are afraid to call. Officers who admit to feeling depressed may fear being removed from active duty or otherwise marginalized. Or, when an officer testifies in court, their prior history of mental health treatment may be used against them.
Police agencies aren’t the only institutions with a built-in stigma around mental illness. People with a history of mental issues may be effectively barred from working in certain professions. These include security guards, firefighters, doctors or nurses and childcare workers, to name a few. A history of mental illness might also interfere with a background check, getting insurance or even starting a personal relationship.
At the heart of this stigma is the fear of violence. It’s commonly believed that people with mental illnesses can’t control their violent impulses, or that they might unpredictably hurt themselves. This is partly because people with mental illness sometimes only become visible after a violent crime makes the news. It contradicts the prevalence of mental illnesses of all kinds and the relative rareness of violent episodes.
For people with mental illness but little money or family support, the picture is often even more bleak. In the United States, many people with mental illness endure endless rounds of hospitalization, incarceration and homelessness. The American Psychological Association estimates that at least 25% of America’s prison inmates have mental health conditions, and at least 10% have serious conditions that are largely not being treated.
The Incomplete Support for Mental Illness
More than anything else, those with mental illnesses need support from other people. This could be a kind word at a critical moment, or it might be regular medication and a safe place to live. In the United States, the support that’s available is highly dependent on public perception of mental illness. It is, after all, these mental attitudes that drive support funding and volunteer efforts in certain directions.
Family is the first place many people with a mental illness turn for support. Family members play a key role in noticing the early signs of a mental illness, and their influence can encourage a loved one to seek help early on. Continuing support is often needed to ensure a loved one is taking necessary medication and seeing their doctor regularly.
Family support for people with mental illness is limited by the social stigma of these conditions. Some families feel guilty when a loved one is diagnosed with a condition, as if they did something wrong and caused it. Other families reject the medical model entirely and seek nonmedical treatments. While there may be some positive effects from this, there’s no evidence that anything outside of scientific medicine genuinely helps.
Support from the community comes in several forms. Churches play a large role in supporting members of their fellowship who have a mental illness. Various volunteer and nonprofit organizations can also help out with home visits and meal deliveries, for instance.
Public opinion on mental illness can hamper these groups’ efforts to support the individuals who need assistance. A general fear of mental illness, for example, may keep some otherwise good people from volunteering at a shelter. Cash and other donations may also be lacking for some nonprofits in this field.
Institutional support is available for people with a mental illness, often as a last resort. Public health systems can usually connect patients with a mental illness with appropriate specialists, although this is expensive. Universities that receive federal funding almost always have a student mental health officer on campus, along with a 24-hour hotline. Jails, prisons and other custodial institutions also frequently have a mental health professional on staff or on call.
No single institution can be expected to pick up all the slack, of course. Funding is always a concern for agencies charged with helping the mentally ill. Chronic understaffing and little to no earmarked funding tends to hurt these institutions in their work. There’s also the danger that people with mental illness who go into an institution become “out of sight/out of mind.”
Fighting the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
Given the harm stigma does to people and institutions dealing with mental health issues, it’s heartening to know many groups are working to change public perceptions. The American Psychiatric Association, for instance, has spent decades making efforts to limit the harmful stereotypes about mental illnesses. These include conducting educational events and issuing public letters.
The World Psychiatric Association also works to dispel myths and end discrimination surrounding schizophrenia through its Open the Doors program. This international program funds workshops for police officers, medical professionals, educators and members of the public in over 25 countries.
Efforts to change the public’s perception of mental illness may have begun to bear fruit. One study found that 87% of Americans now believe that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. However, concerns linger about how well people with mental illness can look after themselves. The stigma that clings to mental illness continues to be a barrier to those who want to seek help. The biggest barrier, however, is that up to 50% of people living with a mental illness don’t known they have one.
Reach Out to FHE for Help
Don’t let fear or a stigma prevent you from getting the help you need for mental illness. Our caring team of counselors is available to talk with you 24/7. Call us today at (833) 596-3502 to start your journey to recovery.