The history of stigma against mental illness is almost as old as mental illness itself. Throughout history, people with afflictions that marked them as strange or different have led to derision, mockery, and even assault or exile. This has been particularly true for mental illness, which has been generally poorly understood throughout history and misrepresented in fictional media.
Mental illness has been looked at as a punishment from God, possession by demons or evil spirits, or other supernatural phenomena. In the Middle Ages, the mentally ill were frequently tortured or even executed; early 20th century treatments for mental illness were often little better: patients were put in asylums to be forgotten and kept from society, not cured or rehabilitated — basically subjected to forced incarceration.
Even now, though things have improved significantly, the stigma against mental illness remains. The mentally ill are frequently depicted as murderous, maniacal, and uniformly dangerous in TV and movies, or treated as the butt of jokes. Diseases such as schizophrenia are widely misunderstood, and even something so common as clinical depression is met with advice to “just cheer up.” Afflictions such as addiction are also frequently misunderstood.
With the way mental illness is so frequently stigmatized, it’s ironic that the means to address it — therapy, counseling, and medication — are also stigmatized. “Being in therapy” is still often used as a form of mockery in media and the popular consciousness and might even be considered a personal failing or a sign of trouble. People with psychological problems might fear to seek out treatment for fear of how others will see them — as if treating one’s mental illness is a tacit admission of being “crazy” or “insane.” Some might even fear for their jobs or relationships if they choose to go into therapy. Tools such as therapy apps that allow people to seek help in private can help, but they’re not always enough.
Therapy and counseling is often misunderstood — it’s seen as unnecessary or unhelpful, and some aren’t aware of the difference between a therapist and a counselor. But therapy has a proven track record of success. Most people who go into therapy, rather than feeling more stigmatized, find therapy can often help with their relationships, and experience no increase in social problems because of their therapy. This can be especially true if they’ve been called names, accused of merely going through a phase, or accused of “not trying hard enough” to overcome their challenges without any assistance.
Battling the Stigma Against Mental Illness
Stigma only holds people back from getting the help they need. It’s important for people with loved ones suffering from mental illness to take steps to fight that stigma. Here are a few steps the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests taking to help raise awareness and fight ignorance when it comes to mental illness.
- If you have mental health issues, talk openly about them.
- Learn more about mental illness so you can educate both yourself and others.
- Be aware of the kind of language you use when referring to mental health issues. It might be helpful to reduce the frequency with which you say “crazy” or “insane.”
- Recognize mental illness as a disease, every bit as real as a physical ailment, and encourage that same recognition in others.
- Show compassion for people suffering from mental disorders.
- If you are (or have been) in treatment, be honest and open about your experiences, to encourage people who might be resistant to the idea of therapy.
- When you see the stereotype of mental illness being perpetuated, or someone deriding either mental illness or therapy, call them out on it. It makes a big difference.
Even therapists themselves are doing their part to try to reduce or eliminate the stigma of therapy. Such stigmatization can frequently come from the patients themselves, who might have some negative feelings about their own therapy-seeking. Good therapists often inquire about these beliefs before beginning serious work, to see if they have a clear idea about seeking help or believe in some stereotypes. Many will also acknowledge that treatment can be scary, and the process can frequently be stressful and emotionally draining.
Some patients may be concerned about insurance issues, as therapy can be a costly proposition out-of-pocket. They might worry about the consequences of seeing a mental health diagnosis applied to their insurance benefit. Therapists may choose to be totally transparent about the diagnosis they’re assigning, to further inform the patient and reduce anxiety over seeking necessary help.
A lot of therapists go to therapy themselves — another reality that is sometimes mocked as humorous, but it’s important to remember therapists are people too, and have their own ups and downs regardless of their experience or credentials. Therapists who are themselves in therapy can remember first-hand how difficult it can be to be open about their feelings and share their vulnerabilities with strangers.
Though therapy and mental illness have been more widely recognized for what they are, there’s still a great deal of work to be done. Whatever we can do to help fight the stereotypes leads us one step closer to getting people the help they need.