Stigma and discrimination against people suffering from serious mental illnesses has been identified as the number one issue for families affecting every aspect of their lives. If one in four people suffer from schizophrenia, notwithstanding all the other mental illnesses, then every family member is affected as well as relatives, friends, neighbors, classmates and teachers too. Discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently from another person in the same or similar circumstance. Mentally ill people attract hostility, fear and disapproval rather than compassion, support and understanding, making them feel isolated and unhappy. This may prevent them from obtaining effective help and medical treatment.
If we label a person as nuts, crazy of schizo, we automatically dismiss them as people to be taken seriously. It is not difficult to use respectful language, emphasize a person’s abilities instead of his limitations. We should avoid using labels such as retard too.
Stigma is what it is because we allow it into our lives by the power that we assign it. Stigma is an assigment of blame. When parents are able to say; “My child is suffering from mental illness and is in a psychiatric hospital, the people out there will not be able to point a finger at us again. Stigma is about disrespect,. It’s about the negative use of labels. It is about social exclusion. It makes some families hide their ill relative who has done nothing wrong other than to become ill. Stigma deprives them of the support and love that they so desperately need. People know how to handle death but not mental illness.
The media have a lot to answer for when it comes to reporting on mental illness, specially schizophrenia. The print media pick on, victimize and even demonize people suffering from mental illness in a way that would be totally unacceptable or even illegal if directed toward any other sector of our communities. Violence is not a symptom of mental illness but the press give the impression that it is. Recent research has found that 40% of people believe that serious mental illness is associated with violence.
There are people without the diagnosis of mental illness who are violent. It would be helpful if the press could avoid prejudicial references to a person’s race, color, religion, sex or to a physical or mental disability. I have been interviewed by journalists who handled our tragedy with great sensitivity but the illustrations that I was not permitted to see before publication were horrible, accentuating the negative. A 20th Century Fox promotion for the movie Me, Myself and Irene, actually carried the line; From Gentle to Mental. As a result, people avoid and fear individuals suffering from mental illness.