I had a discussion with my therapist the other day about mental health advocacy which concluded with her telling me I would make a good advocate for the mentally ill and for mental health issues, because I have–I think she put it this way–had moments where I was not myself. My mood swings and little breaks from reality really help me to understand others with mental health issues, and I think this will be an asset to me when I am a psychologist myself.
But I’ve realized I also have a good understanding of why the stigma persists. People fear what they don’t understand, as the old adage goes. And most people certainly don’t understand mental illness–there’s plenty even our best scientists don’t understand yet. So that’s one reason.
The other is that the way the mentally ill are traditionally perceived, that is to say, the way the mentally ill are perceived as incredibly dangerous, has not changed for centuries. Sure, care for the mentally ill in most developed nations has significantly improved–people don’t chain us up in basements, for example, and the care provided by institutions has markedly changed for the better–but, let’s face it, people still don’t see us like they see patients with more physical ailments. There are still those who even still stubbornly cling to the idea that mental illness doesn’t exist, and the severely mentally ill are just faking it or–yes, I have heard this before–demon-possessed. This is the twenty-first century. Those ideas should not even exist.
And yet, people still cling to the idea that the mentally ill are all dangerous. In fact, the mentally ill are several times more likely to be attacked than to attack, a fact confirmed by even the surgeon general. The media certainly doesn’t help. As I have mentioned in a different post, the media disproportionately displays the dangerous side of mental illness through movies (it is inevitably a schizophrenic or bipolar wielding the murder weapon in all the horror films). And news stories are always quick to point out with killers that they were mentally ill.
I’m not saying that these movies should not exist. I personally enjoy the Hannibal Lecter movies, and the old Psycho. I just think that there should be more films out there that show the more human side of mental illness, films like A Beautiful Mind. That way the media would not be so disproportionate in the way they portray the mentally ill.
And then maybe, just maybe, others would come to see us as people, not a threat.