On Mental Illness: Stereotypes and Stigma

By Jack Bragen
Sunday October 16, 2011 - 05:51:00 PM

Society has an unfriendly perception of persons with mental illnesses. Persons with mental illness are thought to be murderers, sociopaths, and wild people who are out of control. This is usually not accurate. Television news does a good job of making people believe that persons with mental illness do most of the violent crimes in society; but this is not so. Only a small percentage of violent acts are perpetrated by persons with mental illness, and most mentally ill people are not violent. Most violence in society is probably due to domestic issues, the narcotics trade, and also gang activity. Most criminals aren’t mentally ill; they are criminals, a fairly distinct category of people. Most persons with mental illness are gentler than the average person, and many would choose death for themselves long before hurting another person. 

Persons with mental illness are thought to be freaky and sick people; abnormal, unwashed, and a crude and inferior breed of people—almost subhuman. Even a Zen practitioner in an article in a popular meditation magazine said: “It is hard to have compassion for such people.” (When I read that, a statement which I believe was bigoted, I was outraged because of its illustrious and supposedly evolved source.) 

In fact, persons with mental illness aren’t freaks; we are actual human beings with feelings. We want the same things for ourselves that nearly everyone wants. Yet, many of those good things in life, which non-afflicted people take for granted, for us are out of reach. 

When someone disrespects us or treats us with condescension, we are impacted. When this happens repeatedly on a daily basis, it becomes ingrained into our psyches. We may eventually become the drooling circus act who people believe us to be. 

Misconceptions about persons with mental illness run parallel to misconceptions that existed up until recently concerning African American people, other non Caucasian people, Gay people and Lesbian people. If your memory is long enough, the negative stereotypes that society has about persons with mental illness are pretty much the same falsehoods that existed decades ago concerning other minority groups. However, in society today, it is still socially acceptable to have disdain, false superiority and dislike toward persons with mental illness. 

Persons with mental illness are vulnerable. In the jails and prisons we become victims of some of the worst abuse. Outside of jail, criminals often prey on us as easy victims. In mainstream society, we are the butt of people’s jokes and are socially excluded. In treatment venues, our perspective and our worth are often invalidated. Family who are more successful may not tell their peers even of our existence. Businesspersons may hire us for only the most demeaning of jobs. 

Persons with mental illness may be the last minority. And we, too, are waiting for the day when all people are treated with dignity and respect.