Mental Health and Social Stigmatization
Mental health encompasses the social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of members of the society. It is essentially a state of wellbeing in which individuals can realize their personal potential, cope effectively with the normal difficulties of life, work successfully and productively, and participate actively in and contribute to their communities. Mental health constitutes a part of the complete or wholesome health of individuals, alongside the physical and social aspects. This wholesome perspective considers health as a complete state of wellbeing that includes all these aspects, rather than simply the absence of infirmity or disease (WHO, 2014). The social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of individuals affects the way they feel, act, and think, and helps to determine the ways in which they address or cope with stress, relate with other members in the society, and make decisions/choices.
Mental health is a concern for individuals of all ages, especially in the modern society where individualism and the stresses of life have increased. Children, adolescents, and adults are also subject to issues of mental health owing to biological factors (such as brain chemistry and genes), experiences of life (such as abuse, trauma, and addictions to substances), and family history (WHO, 2014; Corrigan, 2006). Recent surveys have observed that no society, country, culture, or age group is immune to mental illness. Issues of mental health, including diverse illnesses such as substance abuse, anxiety, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, represent an increasing problem worldwide and across all ages.
Mental health issues are deeply concerning owing to the stigma traditionally associated with the conditions. Corrigan (2006) observes that the experience of mental illness represents a major problem for patients owing to its nature as a “two-edged sword”. On one hand, the skill deficits and symptoms of psychiatric disease interfere with the capacities of individuals to achieve and perform productive work and many social roles effectively, as well as make use of opportunities for independent living that are consistent with these social roles and improve the quality of life. On the other hand, the society’s reactions to these illnesses lead to stigmatization and discrimination of the patient, thereby impeding unjustly the individual’s ability to address the needs of the condition and perform work and other responsibilities (Corrigan, 2006). While psycho-pharmacological and rehabilitation strategies are important in addressing the mental health problems of individuals, discrimination and social stigma are also necessary to assist in the individual’s full recovery.
Stigma about mental illness is a general problem in the society, with the attitudes and actions of society members endorsing stigmatizing attitudes and views. Stigmatizing views concerning mental illness are evident among both informed and uninformed members of the society (Corrigan, 2006). Corrigan (2006) notes research findings that even well-trained professionals from many disciplines of mental health subscribe to stereotypes concerning mental illness. The high prevalence of social stigma concerning the illness is attributable to sociocultural perspectives (the development of stigma in justification for existing social injustices), motivational biases (stigma that develops to meet basic psychological needs), and social cognitive theories (stigma that is the product of processing of the structures of human knowledge). The impact of stigma on the efforts of patients to seek treatment, share their experiences of the illness with others, and address their needs is evident in the prevalence of three major themes in misconceptions about the mental illness (Corrigan, 2006):
- Exclusion and fear – the perception that persons with mental illness are people to fear and keep away from, such that communities actively isolate them.
- Authoritarianism – the perception that persons with mental illness are irresponsible, such that others have to make life decisions for them/on their behalf.
- Benevolence – the perception that persons with mental illness are childlike and have to be subject to care like children.
These perceptions stigmatize mental illness based on the general disapproval of its patients. The society treats mental illness patients as in control of their disabilities, and as essentially responsible for causing them. These attitudes are important hindrances against the availability and provision of help and services to address the problem because of their behavioral impact in four forms (Corrigan & Watson, 2002):
- The withholding of help
- Social avoidance of these patients – the public strives to avoid interactions with mentally ill persons altogether
- Coercive treatment
- Segregation in institutions
These treatments of mentally ill persons influence their choices not to seek treatment or share with others to avoid the label of being mentally ill, and hence escape or avoid social stigma.
In the media, the portrayal of mental health is often that of association with violence and crime. In films, prime time television, and media reports, the mass media often utilize mental illness as an explanation for crimes and violence, including crimes such as mass shootings. The media portray mentally ill individuals as unstable, unpredictable, violent, and extremely dangerous. They also portray mentally ill persons as incapable of becoming productive society members. They are typically alienated persons without families, occupations, and social identities (Smith, 2015). These portrayals fit in with the general social stereotyping of mentally ill persons. They serve to entrench the three major themes discussed above concerning the perception of mentally ill individuals – exclusion and fear, benevolence, and authoritarianism – and hence reinforce social stigma against them.
Corrigan, P. (2006). Mental health stigma as social attribution: Implications for research methods and attitude change. Clinical Psychology Science and Practice 7: 48-67.
Corrigan, P., & Watson, A. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry 1(1): 16-20.
Smith, B. (2015). Mental illness stigma in the media. The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research 16(10): 1-15.
World Health Organization (WHO) (2014). Mental health: A state of wellbeing. WHO. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/
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