Less than half of those individuals received mental health services in the past year. Aside from lack of access to care, one of the most prevailing roadblocks to seeking treatment for mental illness is the stigma. Psychiatric diagnoses are regularly used as demeaning put downs or insults towards people who aren’t even diagnosed with mental illness. For those of us who have a diagnosed mental illness, the stigma takes another turn, not just demeaning, but often swinging between fearful and abject pity.
Fearful because as individuals with psychiatric illness we must be dangerous, (especially regarding any diagnoses that include episodes of psychosis) not only to ourselves, but to anyone that we interact with—despite overwhelming evidence that people with serious mental illness have a far higher likelihood of being victims of violence than perpetrators. Pity often springs from the assumption that mental illness equals helplessness, low intelligence, and a lifelong dependence on caregivers.
I was guilty of that self-stigmatization regarding helplessness and ineptitude myself for several years after my own diagnoses with Schizoaffective Disorder in 2003. There was no way I’d ever be able to have a productive life or a career. I was incapable of even cooking, how could I ever live alone or take care of myself? These self-defeating beliefs had sprung in part from the words of a provider during my first hospitalization for psychosis, “If we’re lucky we can stabilize you enough so that you can continue living at home with your husband. I suggest speaking with case manager to help you file for disability.” My loved ones treating me as though I would crack at any moment nurtured my fears further. I was barely 22 years old being told my life was essentially over. I would always be a burden for others to care for, be it family caregivers or professional caregivers. I believed the provider, because doctors know best, right? For several years after I allowed others to take care of me; family, romantic partners, treatment teams. Even after successfully completing the certification program to work as a peer support specialist and proving that I could maintain employment, I still held on to aspects of my own stigmatization and self-imposed helplessness and dependency.
Stigma can affect people from not only seeking mental health services but can have a detrimental effect on nearly every aspect of life. From seeking medical attention for physical injury and illness and being told things such as “you speak so clearly for a schizophrenic”, (Actual statement recently made to a friend by a tech in the ER) or seeking housing and employment and being denied, due to not being able to promptly respond. From starting a new relationship or making new friends, to securing and maintaining employment, there is the near constant fear of judgment and rejection.
It’s past time we started treating mental illness the same as any other illness; with compassion, caring, and support.