For decades we have been studying stigma in mental health from the research of Irving Goffman in Asylums in the early 1950’s, to the more recent work of Patrick Corrigan’s Don’t Call me Nuts and Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America. Today we continue to study stigma as evidenced in the recent 2015 research by Patricia A. Carlisle’s, Mental Health Stigma: How to overcome mental health stigma in America.
So we have to ask where we are as a society in terms of stigma, fear and mental health. What have we accomplished? Have we made any progress or changed attitudes? Have we created inclusion for our friends and family with mental health issues? Have we shifted beliefs? Are we any closer to creating an environment where teenagers can tell their parents or friends about their voices? Can a 20-year old let a college know they are taking a semester off to go into a behavioral health program? Can a 32-year old nurse ask for accommodation because they are experiencing severe symptoms of bipolar type 2 and still be eligible for a promotion? Can we bring a behavioral health program to a vacant community hospital, bringing 50 to 200 jobs to that small town and be welcomed, rather than attacked? Sadly, in 2017, the answer to these questions is still no.
So the mandate today, more than ever, is to wage war on mental health discrimination, stereotypes, stigmatizing images and inflammatory media coverage, national leaders who ridicule and mock, shaming language, intolerance and hatred.
It is fear that stops people from telling someone they are experiencing a mental health crisis. It is fear that prevents people from getting help. It is fear that stops parents from getting treatment for their children. It is fear that creates the environment where a community feels vindicated in fighting mental health services coming to their community.
This fear and hatred is the stigma that people who have mental health issues live with every day. Stigma is more debilitating than the diagnosis or symptoms. It is a dark shadow hanging over you. It is the barrier to accessibility. It is the barrier to friendships and relationships. It is the barrier to finishing a degree, pursuing a career or even working at all. It is the barrier to recovery. It keeps you sick and disabled if you let it and if our society accepts it. Today we must speak up, make political choices, and fight legal battles to impact this fear and hate of mental health issues. During a recent California land use legal battle, an 85-year old mother, who is a leader in NAMI, closed the public comment section in the meeting with the following statement, “There are two four-letter words – FEAR and HOPE. You choose.”
Fighting stigma, fighting fear, fighting hate and discrimination is a battle to be fought by everyone. We must make it our battle and we must win. We must join with the California Institute for Behavioral Health Solutions (CIBHS) and other national movements such as Stamp Out Stigma, NAMI, and Each Mind Matters to fight and eliminate stigma in our services, families, communities and our world. Until the stigma and fear that surrounds mental health has been eliminated, the world will be a darker place, making it more difficult for people to get the help they need and deserve. As former President Bill Clinton said, “Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”
Patricia Blum, PhD
Executive Vice President