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Mental Health Stigma: Prejudice and Discrimination

Stigma.

It’s an ugly, six letter word that can single-handedly dictate how your life will turn out. Mental health stigma can mean the difference between getting that dream job, or remaining unemployed. Between getting that coveted boyfriend or girlfriend, or remaining single. It can also mean the difference between remaining in hiding or coming out of the mental health closet.

Mental health stigma can single-handedly dictate how your life will turn out – if you let it.

Even though stigma has the ability to take control of one’s life, it is ultimately what we do with it that matters. If you have been diagnosed with a major mental illness, you may believe that you have to face the rest of your life shrouded in a veil of secrecy. I make that assumption because for nearly fifteen years, I felt the exact same way.

The Definition of Mental Health Stigma

Everyone who has dealt first-hand with the stigma around mental illness likely has a working definition in their mind, but the people at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health sum it up quite nicely.

“Stigma refers to negative attitudes (prejudice) and negative behavior (discrimination) towards people with substance use and mental health problems.”

Mental health stigma knows no bounds and is constantly on the move. It can catch you in the workplace or in the classroom. It can interfere with making friends and can even interfere with keeping friends. But since stigma has to begin with a negative attitude or prejudice, if we can lessen the prejudice, we should in theory be able to lessen the discrimination.

People fear what they don’t understand. And let’s face it, mental health has only recently begun to even be an acceptable topic of conversation. Unfortunately, for many, it is still a topic that sends shivers down spines but it doesn’t have to stay that way. By simply talking about it, we normalize it. I have a feeling that, eventually, people will start to understand.

I never told any friends, coworkers or even romantic partners that I had been hospitalized against my will for over four months for drug-induced psychosis. I never told them that I was once again hospitalized for several months for major depression. Why? Because of stigma.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Stigma

But just how much of that mental health stigma was created in my own mind? Because now, I’m open and honest about my history and life couldn’t be better.

It feels great not having to create convoluted stories to mask the several years of my life spent in psychiatric chaos. I no longer have to fill my resume with white lies to cover the times spent in the psychiatric hospital.

Everyone is different and everyone should come out about their own mental health issues at the right time for them and, preferably, with proper support.

But for me, the time is now and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

The Completely in Blue website is here. Chris is also on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

This entry was posted in Dealing with Stigma, Impact of Stigma, Mental Health Stigma, Overcoming Stigma and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Mental Health Stigma: Prejudice and Discrimination

  1. Great blog, Chris! Welcome to HealthyPlace.

  2. Chris Curry says:

    Thank you so much! So very glad to be here. I am overwhelmed by the incredible content on the site and am looking forward to doing my part.

  3. Calree Savoie says:

    I couldn’t agree more Chris! If only I had pushed past the wallls if this very same stigma I may have reached out to the resources I needed for help long ago. I had such a huge fear of hearing the door shut behind me as I entered the inpatient mental health unit at soldiers memorial hospital. I felt I was admitting defeat. That I had to throw my hand in the air along with any sense of Control. But know that its actually the opposite. I went in to have the greatest access available to gain control in my life so that I could get better. Yes I fear a day will come where I am no longer well. But I won’t carry it with shame. Ill just go get the he’ll I need. :)

  4. Chris Curry says:

    Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you can see that it is ‘actually the opposite’ as you say. Admitting you need help is not even close to the same thing as admitting defeat.

    Hold your head up high and don’t be ashamed of who you are. And if that day does come when you are no longer doing well, use your resources and get back into the game. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I hope you keep reading my column in the coming weeks and it’s a pleasure to ‘meet’ you.

  5. Steve Sparks says:

    My posting today looks at the stigma problem. It is sad when someone has to guard against surfacing a mental health diagnosis for fear of discrimination.

  6. I have been. Cyber bullies have attacked me discriminates me no help pa stare cannot figure out where to get IP address. And had to relocate because of this still have not stop a

  7. Chris Curry says:

    Indeed it is. I do believe however, that society as a whole is slowly becoming more accepting. Of course, we have a long way to go.

  8. Chris Curry says:

    I’m really sorry to hear about your experience with cyber-bullying. The age of the quick Internet fix certainly doesn’t make anything easier in terms of discrimination. Stay strong!

  9. Anne Rood says:

    Hi Chris-
    I recently encountered a huge stigma issue at a local pychology counseling visit. I went there for marriage counseling and the psychologist decided within 10 minutes of the conversation, as soon as he found out I had a mental illness, that he would not help us until I had gone to see my psychiatrist. I have been well for two years!

  10. PurpleMuse says:

    I was diagnosed with Bi Polar in the mid 90′s. It cost me a job and almost my life. Then I decided to fight it: I went to college (it took much longer than most people with the medical withdraws I had to do), I did very, very well – that is, when I was well. When I am well I am very articulate and people immediately see that I am intelligent and capable. It is a good feeling. But then I have to disappoint them by appearing very inconsistent. They don’t know why, because being bi polar is my dirty little secret. I just drop off the planet: don’t answer calls, self-isolate, and when in school, drop out of class when I know I am getting sick (usually in late fall and winter). Then a few months later they see me again, mention it’s been awhile, and that’s when I have to either be very vague, exaggerate life issues or outright lie. I had gotten so used to being viewed as successful, hard-working and intelligent that I could not bear being viewed differently and losing that admiration. I was an honor student, I did important research, I wanted to “be” something. Then I would get sick and feel like an imposter and without the help of a great counselor, wouldn’t even have gone back to school.

    After college I quit taking my meds convinced I had been mis-diagnosed and I was going to be “normal” and not “buy in” to the diagnostic labels so I could quit feeling the shame of self-stigma and feel better about who I am. I got a great job as a trauma counselor and volunteer coordinator for a non-profit. I had my own office and had earned the trust in my competence to have complete control of how my program was run. I managed to keep this up for a little more than 3 years. I hid my winter depressions by going in after hours and working nearly all night to make up for my lack of energy and concentration. The hypomanic springs would catch me up. Then I crashed. Years of burning the candle at both ends and not using medications, and basically not having a single person in my life to talk about these things, I had a serious mixed episode and it was obvious to everyone at work there was something seriously wrong with me. I ended up being hospitalized. Then when I shared my diagnosis I pretended that I had been given the diagnosis for the first time. Everyone was great. Or so I thought, when it came right down to it, I was never looked at the same way again. I was micromanaged, lost all authority in my dept, most of my job description was farmed out the other employees. I begged to be some kind of way of “earning” my job back. Some performance and job load milestones of getting back to where I was before. It never happened. Even though I worked with mental health professionals, I was treated like damaged goods. I quit. All this did was teach me that I had to keep my secret. This lead to more frequent episodes, self-isolating, and basically self-loathing. I went back on disability, accepted a monthly income 1/3 of what it was, but mostly I gave up on ever being “normal”.

    I don’t date because I feel no one deserves to get stuck with someone like me. That they will meet me when I am well, have all these ideas of who I am and then I would inevitably have to burst their bubble. Mostly though, I don’t want to lie and I don’t want to feel so horrified while “outing myself” and face rejection.

    I have TONS of insight, I have an educational background in neuropsychobiolgy and trauma counseling for heaven’s sake! Yet the stigma hurts me more than my illness and probably keeps me sicker than I need to be (especially at the heart/soul level). I have lost 6 years of my life – more from my nearly full-time self-stigma / shame than from my less than part-time bi polar disorder.

    I am in counseling myself and working very hard on trying to overcome my shame and accept my illness but more importantly I am trying to rejoin the human race and better my situation by trusting in people – one at a time. Stigma is an awful thing, it is a debilitating societal disease in itself. When that stigma gets turned inward, it may as well become a sword that metaphorically (or in some instances literally) severs your life.

    Thanks for speaking out about this. It is good to know that stigma is possible to overcome.

  11. Marsha says:

    I was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia over two years ago and its been difficult but I have finally been able to put my life back together. The hardest thing (I found) was telling both of my best friends about my diagnosis and dealing with the anger and treatment from some of my family members after I was diagnosed. My co-workers and classmates do not know about my diagnosis, I have acute schizophrenia with a good prognosis (I stay on my meds and have had to work around the loss of happiness on them) so I am not too worried about a reoccurring incident. But while I was once viewed as a brilliant, stable, role model and friend, the tables have turned for those who know about what happened to me. Instead of looking up to me, people now talk down to me as if I can’t understand what they are saying. While my family does love and support me I can tell that the ones closest to me are very angry about what happened during my psychotic break (I cried a lot and felt persecuted but never posed a danger to anyone). My sister (who was and is the closest person to me) has had a hard time forgiving the fact that I was diagnosed with this disorder, its like to her, I’m not the same.

    I came out of the hospital (a 2 week stay) and immediately began to look for a job and try to get myself back in school. I am now working full time and going to school part time with a 4.0 average. I also just got a promotion and a raise last week. My psychiatrist has lowered my meds and informed me that I may have been misdiagnosed (I am african american) because I have such a low form of the disorder and because I was diagnosed at 30, that my prognosis is pretty good. As I said though, the people that know about my disorder wont let me live it down. They try and treat me like an undesirable or as if they don’t know if I’ll go crazy again (therefore little I say can be taken seriously) and this is hurtful. I am working hard to remove the Mental Illness stigma from my own mind about myself but it doesn’t help when others refuse to see you as you once were. This blog entry was very helpful to me, though my personal philosophy is that my mental health diagnosis (as in any other diagnosis) is my business and no one else’s. Thanks for posting though.

  12. Chris Curry says:

    Thank you so much for your comment. It broke my heart to hear of some of the reactions you received from both family and friends, but I was touched when you mentioned just how great your life is going. The promotion, the raise, the 4.0 GPA . . . sounds like you are really taking charge of your life. I only hope that those closest to you will come around and realize that you are still the same person you have always been.

    Thanks for reading,

    Chris

  13. Andrea says:

    I suffered post natal depression which then resulted in a divorce. This esculated my illness, and yet, after treatment I bounced back. I reasoned that if I could not have ‘mental health’ there were many other things I could enjoy – music, getting fit, making friends, dressmaking, art. My friends and family loved me regardless, I was very blessed to have them.

    I later encountered some very negative, pidgeon holing types of professionals, who did nothing for me, and whom I suspect, gave out information about me, all to my detriment. Fortunately, I am pretty versitile, and I was able to work around them.

    Its not just discrimination that needs to be addressed, but the importance placed on diagnosis, and the stereotyped ideas around about mental illness. Its important to create an environment of acceptance of people as individuals, building on their strengths (abilities and character) rather than emphasizing their illness.

    I found it difficult for a long time to get any help with physical ailments, until I moved away, and ultimately found that I needed to be involved in preventative health. Eventually, it was found that there were contributing factors to my ‘illness’ which could be treated with changes to lifestyle (healthy diet, exercise, stress management, lifestyle planning) I also found it helpful to re-think my attitudes to people, and life in general, and I’ve read a lot of self development books also. Ultimately, there are some benefits to finding some spiritual fulfilment, and we all have the right to practise our faith (in whatever way we wish).

    Health professionals have asked me to write a book about my recovery, which may help other people. I do feel that self-help, lifestyle and a strong faith are the keys to building a new life after mental illness. Good luck to all who are on that road.

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  20. Dr Musli Ferati says:

    Anyhow, stigma on mental ill persons and their care-takers exhibits the main mutilation difficulty on current psychiatric treatment and management; everywhere and at all times. This condition in complex mental health service has got many bad consequences on both direction:it aggravates the course of mental disorder and decreases the probabilities for satisfying prevention of mental illnesses, at all. In this case, I would to stress my indignation on contemptuous attitude of community toward psychiatry, as competent and deserving medical branch on complete and comprehensive treatment of mental disorders.Indeed, this ill-approaching to psychiatry remains till nowadays, even catastrophic man-made repercussions has became our daily sadness.As long as we didn’t understand the functional recommendation of World Health Organization that mental welfare indicates the foundation of individual and collective well-being, we would to sprain after horrible acts, that commit person with mental difficulties.

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  23. Joyce says:

    I have suffered a lot of misunderstandings because of my Borderline Personality Disorder. I am now trying to raise awareness of reduce the stigma of BPD. Please check out my website here:

    http://makebpdstigmafree.wordpress.com/

    and this post:

    http://makebpdstigmafree.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/i-have-borderline-personality-disorder-and-im-proud-of-it/

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  25. judy says:

    “Everyone is different and everyone should come out about their own mental health issues at the right time for them and, preferably, with proper support”.

    CHOICE is key. Unfortunately, sometimes mental health episodes come out in the most inopportune times and you are left stranded with minimal or no support to even begin recovery. My saving grace is that the family structure in my culture will rally behind you, though it is often done with very little understanding and has its own share of stigma within it. But at least I did not end up homeless. Very grateful for that.

    Reason I am writing is to say that a person’s experience is so individual and personal. Whether someone chooses to be open about their illness or disclose is their perogative. I am a deeply private person, and this is the main basis for my decision to not disclose. I don’t appreciate being called “dishonest” simply because I choose not to (and I’ve seen that word bandied about healthyplace, which is annoying). Choice is really the thing that is empowering. When you get to choose, you are mentally and emotionally prepared to defend that choice.

    I have defended other people with mental health issues in the past, and will continue to do so if I see someone maligned because of it, but so what if I refuse to put myself out there? Just not comfortable with it, will probably never be comfortable with it, and I’m just not in a position that makes it conducive to a positive outcome.

    Thank god the stars aligned in your favor that allowed you to step out of your shell. You sound very dedicated and you do good and important work. From what I’ve read, you are a voice for people who would simply disappear into the ether that is the penal system. Many studies have demonstrated that the mentally ill simply do not belong in the harsh world of the prison system, but not many people know this.

    (Side note: just noticed this link. Glad to see the sentiment is shared after all. http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/bipolargriot/2012/10/10/the-value-of-choice-in-disclosing-or-not-disclosing-your-mental-illness/

    Now I feel better.)

    @dina. I read somewhere that cyber-bullies suffer from some sort of dysfunction – be it sexual, social, what have you. Driven by some sort of rage for sure, but that’s an article for another day.

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