PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS
There is a certain stigma that goes with being classified as mentally ill. The question that must then be asked is why? Why is it that there is so often discrimination against those that are perceived as “different”? Not only are those suffering from mental illness stigmatized by society at large but also by people responsible for providing affordable health services to them, for example Medical Aids. In fact a survey conducted by the Depression and Anxiety Support Group found that the benefits are far lower for mental illness than for other medical conditions and are in most cases completely inadequate.
Despite efforts to be political correct we still tend to judge people using our own yardsticks, and attach value to aspects of our lives that are important to us, be it in terms of religion, race, ethnicity and even mental well-being. Hence when people do not reach our standards we tend to be judgmental, start to exclude and become embarrassed to associate with those that do not meet our standards. Discrimination against the mentally ill is no different from racial, ethnic and religious intolerance, however, and can in no way be justified. It results in the hurt, marginalization and isolation of the mentally ill who are no different to those suffering from physical illnesses, for example people with diabetes or asthma. Yet, so often people ready their sympathy for someone who is asthmatic and look scornfully and suspiciously at someone with a mental illness such as depression.
To a large extent people with mental illness have been excluded from mainstream society, and unfortunately to a large extent this is still the case today. Discrimination robs the mentally ill of their rights. Efforts have been made to rectify this trend by South African employment equity act and the establishment of various mental health organizations and patient advocacy groups, these groups have aided in the transformation of attitudes and in educating the public about mental illnesses. Among these is the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, which offers assistance for those suffering from depressive, and anxiety disorders and is dedicated to destigmatise mental illnesses in our society through media awareness campaigns and the education of patients as to their rights. The group has a number of dedicated and trained counsellors offering their services form Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm, on Saturdays from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm and on Sundays 9:00 am to 1:00 pm at (011) 884-1797 or 783-1474/6 for counselling and referrals to mental health professionals.
It is important to realize that all of us have basic human rights, however some classes of people have additional “special” rights. The National Patients Rights Charter outlines the rights of all patients in South Africa. Patients of all sorts have the rights to a safe and healthy environment, which is not possible in the face of discrimination and exclusion. The mentally ill patient like all other patients also have the right to take part in decision-making. Throughout history there have been many famous mentally ill people who have led productive and inspiring lives, for example politicians, artists and writers, namely Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Dickens, among others. Mental illness does not discriminate - it permeates every stratum of society. Suffering from a mental illness does not preclude the potential to significantly contribute to society.
The question of why we stigmatize and discriminate against people with mentally illnesses remains. Well, for one thing, health is one of our most important assets and social values. Good health is important in enjoying a good life, while ill health is negatively evaluated, as it is synonymous with suffering and lack of ability to lead a fulfilling life. While this is true of all illnesses mental illness is so often shrouded with a disproportionate negative evaluation. This really ought not to be the case as a depressive or anxiety disorder is a medical disorder like heart disease or diabetes, and sufferers ought not to be treated or seen any differently.
There are three characteristics that are attributed to mental illness that contributes to this negative evaluation and these are that the mentally ill are assumed to be easily recognized, potentially dangerous and unpredictable. In fact so prejudiced is the general population that a study conducted in the Netherlands yielded that the participants conceded that mentally ill patients are easily recognizable because of the strange look in their eyes, further they are often thought to be sexual offenders whom young girls should avoid. On closer examination however, it is plain to see that one cannot simply recognize someone suffering from a mental illness and that like mentally healthy people, a person with a mental illness does not behave irrationally and dangerously. Similarly, the notion of mentally ill individuals as being sexual offenders is actually ludicrous as most sexual offence perpetrators are known by the victim and are often family members and friends. Most sexual offenders are psychopaths, or are mentally retarded or brain-damaged individuals. It is most unusual for people with mood, anxiety and even psychotic disturbances to perpetrate crimes of a sexual nature.
Indeed, according to Dr Shana Saffer, a leading psychiatrist in private practice in Johannesburg, these claims are misleading. “Most signs of mental illness cannot easily be recognized, unless the persons abilities have deteriorated to such an extent, that they are unable to function in terms of their occupational and social capacities” says Dr Saffer. With regards to the claim that people with mental illness are dangerous, Dr Saffer states that people with mental illnesses such as depressive and anxiety disorders “are more a danger to themselves because of their tendency towards social isolation, self-medication, suicidal ideation and substance abuse.” With regard to unpredictability, Dr Saffer asserts that once a diagnosis is made behavior can be monitored along with clinical conditions. The risks of unpredictable behavior are probably highest among patients abusing drugs and alcohol.
Mental illness effects the sufferer’s relationships with family, friends and co-workers. It often results in stress for these people. The mentally ill also have their own distress and suffering, something that is not always considered by others. Perhaps this should be reason enough for people to re-examine their stance on mental health issues, as firstly people with mental illnesses are capable of leading healthy lives and secondly it ought to be realized that seeking help from a psychologist or psychiatrist for mental health is no different to seeing a doctor for ones physical health concerns. It is evident that attitudes and behavior towards people with mental illnesses needs to be reviewed, and the work of mental health organizations ought to be endorsed and supported in this regard.
In closing then let us separate facts from fiction:
Myths about people with mental illnesses
Myth 1: Mentally ill persons are dangerous
Myth 2: Mentally ill persons belong in the Looney bin
Facts about people with mental illnesses
Fact 1: Most mental ill people are not dangerous but feel easily
Fact 2: People with mental illness can and have made a valuable
contribution to society
Myths about mental illness
Myth 1: Mental illness cannot affect rich and intelligent people
Myth 2: Mental illness cannot happen to me
Myth 3: Mental illness is in the mind
Myth 4: Mental illness in untreatable
Facts on mental illness
Fact 1: Wealth and Intelligence is not an insurance against mental illness
Fact 2: Mental illness can strike anyone
Fact 3: Mental illness is often in the brain and often has biological causes
Fact 4: Mental illness can be easily treated and managed just like the way diabetes and