No one denies the existence of a cancer patient’s illness or makes fun of him/her for it. You won’t likely see someone with a broken arm being avoided. Likewise, a guy who was born without limbs will likely be looked at differently for the rest of his life, but no one will ever deny him a job or deny him the right to own a gun because of his disability.
So what is it about brain disorders that evokes such a different reaction in people?
Well, it all dates back to before we even knew that the mind originates in the brain. Back then, the severely mentally ill were regarded as weak-willed or downright evil people who had given in to demonic possession. People were horrified, and chained, beat, and frequently castrated sufferers of mental illness. Another old theory has to do with the moon. The weak-minded were said to be susceptible to the same hold the moon has over tides, and so on full moons especially, so the proponents of this theory argued, the moon’s pull caused their behavior to be erratic. This is the origin of the word “lunatic.”
Flash-forward a few centuries. We are learning about the brain now more than ever, and thus, we are able to learn more about mental disorders. Powerful imaging techniques allow us to see areas of the brain that might play roles in different disorders; in the near-future, we may identify the genes that cause people to be at risk for mental disorders (which I’m not so sure is a good thing, but I’ll save that for a different post.) The only thing outdated about mental disorders today is people’s attitude toward them.
The media, I hate to say, does not help. In truth, only a very small percentage of the mentally ill population will ever be violent, but this tiny group is overly represented on the television and films. You’re very unlikely to see a non-violent mentally ill person on a show like CSI or Criminal Minds. Many horror films are also at fault. Even a film I very much enjoy, “Silence of the Lambs,” equates terrifying-ness with mental illness. The thing is, these shows wouldn’t be an issue if they weren’t the only view of mental illness that the “normal” population is exposed to.
I don’t understand why the mentally ill are still acceptable targets for poking fun. Major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia… these things (and others) are debilitating.
And here’s something I will admit: in some ways, I am a coward. I would like to be a more vocal advocate of reducing the stigma around mental illness. I would like to be more open about my own mental illness. Imagine having a terrible burden that you can’t reveal to other people. I would like to do these things, but the fact is, the social stigma is still very heavy and I just don’t want to deal with it ruining the life I have pieced together in-between struggles with mental illness.
Anyway, that was my rant about stigma and mental illness. Maybe it will catch someone’s eye and help him/her to better understand the social pressures against the mentally ill.