From Stigma to Stability: Changing Minds About Mental Illness

November 13, 2012 Randye Kaye
Try an experiment:
Of the four pictures below, which do you think is representative of someone with mental illness? There can be more than one answer, but don't overthink this: just follow your gut instinct.

[caption id="attachment_1179" align="alignleft" width="170" caption="A"]PTSD art[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1180" align="alignright" width="170" caption="B"]James Holmes[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1177" align="alignleft" width="170" caption="C"]Tara[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1178" align="alignright" width="170" caption="D"]Fellowship kitchen[/caption]

Recently I've tried this experiment on several audiences -from "civilian" (not actively part of the mental health field) to "insiders" like NAMI groups and healthcare professionals. The results are not surprising in the former, but eye-opening in that they are similar in the latter.

Mental Illness: First Reactions?

Most people identify picture B (James Holmes, the "Batman Killer") the most readily as a symbol of mental illness. They are not wrong, of course. Holmes has, it turns out, been identified with schizophrenia. But the so-far-universal show of hands for the runner-up picture C (The United States of Tara) has surprised me, as it reflects a common misidentification of schizophrenia as having "multiple personalities."

Hardly anyone - even in the groups with knowledge - chose pictures A (of a beautiful young adult with PTSD, and her artwork) and D (of a kitchen internship program in a clubhouse, training people with mental illness to succeed in the workplace). It seems we just can't shake the negatives away and see potential for happiness, productivity, and love where mental illness is concerned. But, violence and confusion? Absolutely. Still.

Why is that? More importantly - how can we change minds about it?

Facing Stigma in the Workplace

My son Ben was laid off from his job last week, for the winter season, after 18 months of part-time employment that had been an emotional success in so many ways. Well, it had been a nice vacation from stigma for a while; his employer knew of his schizophrenia but said it made no difference. Ben remained employed for over a year after a hospitalization last summer, and that sense of purpose and structure has done wonders for him.

Now, though, Ben has to go out on a job hunt, and the issue of stigma has resurfaced in a big way:

  • What if the prospective employer questions the gaping holes in Ben's work history before this last job? We are talking eight years here.
  • Will the stress of having to make the change to unemployment, and then -hopefully - back to employee in a new environment, be too much stress for Ben?
  • What if Ben's diagnosis of schizophrenia is revealed? Will it prevent someone from hiring him?
  • Will he be judged because of his illness? And, if so, what will the verdict be?

We who live with mental illness, in ourselves or in a family member, live also with stigma. Sad, but unfortunately still true. Why? Partly, at least, because very little press is given to success where mental illness is concerned - especially schizophrenia, seemingly the last mental illness in the closet.

Stomping Out Stigma? Increase Understanding.

So what do do? Here are a few ideas, to start changing minds:

  • Shift media focus. Let's give more press to success stories of people living with mental illness, particularly the much-maligned schizophrenia, who are living lives of love, purpose, courage, stability - or who are in the process of trying to get there with amazing courage and strength.
  • Clear, non-discriminatory policies from the top. In the workplace, send a clear directive from the top that the company views mental illness the same way they view any other illness in terms of how those living with it are treated in the workplace.
  • Talk about it. Encourage open dialogues among those willing to discuss their experiences living with mental illness.
  • Get the facts, make the facts available, dispel myths.
  • Provide support for those living with mental illness - and their families - so there is community in recovery.

There is so much work to do. There are many more ideas. I hope for the day when Ben's courage in rebuilding his own future, after eight hospitalizations and many challenges, will be as respected and rewarded as another's fight to walk again after an accident.

APA Reference
Kaye, R. (2012, November 13). From Stigma to Stability: Changing Minds About Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Author: Randye Kaye

November, 18 2012 at 9:51 am

It is very hard to get a job with gaps in your resume. I was able to be rather creative about mine- also, I did certain things during this time like change fields and go back to school in a different field- so they didn't really care too much about my previous history- that made it much easier to get a job.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
November, 18 2012 at 10:00 am

thanks, Emily!

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