Think stigma against mental illness is decreasing? You'd be wrong.(RICK GOMEZ/CORBIS)Stigma against the mentally ill is bad, and research suggests it is getting worse, says Patrick Corrigan, PsyD, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology and director of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research. "Mental illness is still extremely stigmatized," he says, "thanks in part to television shows that portray this population as dangerous, in need of supervision, and/or wild and irresponsible. That is the public perception, despite evidence that they are no more dangerous than anyone else."
Stigma against the mentally ill comes from two other sources. There is self-stigma, in which a person assumes a "why try" attitude about life goals and tasks.
Even more insidious is label avoidance, which often leads people to avoid treatment because they don't want to be grouped with the mentally ill.
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When Max Dine's wife had an operation, she got 50 get-well cards. When the retired oncologist from Phoenix was cycling through the agony of bipolar disorder, no one wrote or called him. "You lose friends because they don't know what's going on or don't want to associate with someone who's dealing with depression," he says. "With mental illness, a lot of the time they think you're faking it."
Sometimes families and friends can subtly pressure people into avoiding treatment as well. "In my family, depression is just something you are not supposed to talk about," says Keris Myrick, 46, of Pasadena, Calif. "If I had bouts of extreme sadness, as a teen, my dad would ask, 'Why are you crying?' I'd say, 'I don't know, I just am,' and he'd say, 'Well you don't have anything to cry about, back in the day ... blah blah,' and 'your ancestors came from slavery' and on and on. I was expected to perform well in school, there was a lot of pressure to succeed. I might've been more free to speak about it earlier if I hadn't felt the pressure to be Superwoman."
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Stigma against people with mental problems is baked into the health-care system, says John C. Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. For the mentally ill, access to psychological care and payment issues are an ongoing struggle. "There's no parity with regular health insurance," he says, "and insurance companies permit so few visits per year [to a mental health provider]." He calls this disparate treatment "gross discrimination."
Should you "come out" as mentally ill?
Though he is a mental health advocate, Corrigan encourages the mentally ill to carefully consider whether they want to "come out" to others. Once you are out it is hard to get back in, so you should test the waters. "You might say to somebody, 'Hey, did you see ER? Sally Field came out as bipolar. What did you think of that?' If they say, 'That's just political correctness, I hate those people,' then that is someone you should not tell."
Jennisse Peatick, 36, says she lives a "happy, joyful" life with her husband, three dogs, and three cats in Hillsborough, N.J. Yet she feels self-stigma every day. "I think people assume being depressed makes me weak, even though I am very strong. Who knows where I got that. I don't think anyone has ever mistreated me because I am depressed.