The stigma associated with mental illness must end


Mental illness is still seen as a stigma in society even though there are effective interventions and positive results. There are many myths and misconceptions about mental illness. These are present even in highly educated people. Because of the stigma, people try to hide the symptoms, fail to seek treatment in time, and suffer longer.

Sometimes they resort to faith healing as the only method of treatment, seeing it as a socially acceptable theory of the causation of mental health symptoms; for example, people think that the symptoms are due to supernatural forces or spirits. In the process, many shy away from evidence-based medical treatment.

The family of a mentally ill person also feels the negative repercussions of stigma; sometimes members are even socially ostracized. The impact of stigma is felt in schools, universities, workplaces and social functions, even in professional / clinical spheres. Research also suggests that stigma is associated with exclusion from higher education and employment, poverty, victimization and reduced longevity. In summary, stigma is associated with a harsher and unnecessary struggle for patients and their families.

Professionals, patients and their caregivers are already aware of the issues; it is important for the general public and society to be aware of it. There is an urgent need to tackle the stigma associated with mental illness and to eradicate it from society.

Primarily, public education is the main vehicle of the anti-stigma campaign. Various methods were used in the process, e.g. written information, individuals sharing their own mental health experience, video messages, news and social media information, movies, etc.

However, these messages should be comprehensive for ordinary people, preferably communication should be in their own language and in a culturally sensitive manner without offending any feelings. In this regard, religious and faith leaders can also be informed and educated about mental illness, as they are often approached by families for help.

Mental health professionals can go a long way in addressing stigma. Clinicians can proactively approach the problem while dealing with patients and their caregivers. Educating loved ones and caregivers helps a lot, especially when they go through the process and observe the progress and the outcome.

Sometimes celebrities share information about their experiences with mental illness, struggles, successes and recovery. These have a positive effect on society; convey the message that those affected are not alone and that people of all categories can have or develop mental illness. However, this is a rare event; Most of the time, people learn about celebrity mental health issues through events like suicides, drug issues, etc. through the media. It is important that public figures share their stories when possible to encourage people to seek help and treatment early, by setting an example that positive outcomes are possible.

Mental illnesses have been exaggerated and sensational inaccurately portrayed in the news, social media, writing and movies. Unnecessary dramatization still exists in films and plays. The positive results following an intervention and the cures of mental illnesses are not duly taken into account. It doesn’t help; and the myths and misconceptions continue unabated. There are examples of good practice from some media in their reporting on mental illness and they provide sources of support to the public; however, the media being a powerful vehicle for public education, they can do more in addressing the stigma of mental illness.

Even with the great advances in medical science and the availability of highly effective treatments, it is a shame that the stigma associated with mental illness continues in society. Its negative impact is felt by patients, their families and society in general; and it affects lives. There is a need to conduct campaigns against the stigma of mental illness, through specific programs and public education methods involving clinicians, caregivers and the general public. Consistent, multi-pronged efforts in this regard can de-stigmatize mental illness and enable patients to achieve better outcomes.

(The author is a consultant psychiatrist at the National Health Service, UK)

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