I’m going to ask you to picture someone with mental illness. Go ahead, take your time.
What came to mind?
Was it a middle aged woman shouting profanity on the bus? A creepy villain of your favourite thriller? Someone you saw on the news for violence, or perhaps murder? Maybe a little differently, an unemployed alcoholic who can’t hold down a job? If you conjured up any of these images, don’t be alarmed; it’s not just you, it’s the notorious reputation that mental illness carries. Even someone who reads the news every day, someone who advocates for social good, someone quite well versed in mental health may find themselves caught up in the claws of stigma. Amongst those with the illness, self-stigma is also quite severe.
You’d think it’d be easy to look past the wildly inaccurate image of mental illness after all the positive reaction and support that is pouring in of late, especially after Robin Williams’ tragic death. Although this attention is encouraging, and is a positive sign that we are on the right path, still, for now, it is not enough. I feel that it does not hold much weight over the towering presence of stigma. For some reason, these images of individuals with mental illness as violent and/or destructive are stained in our memory. Sometimes, even I, someone with mental illness in the family, automatically turn to these unfair images on first thought.
Now, I am not going to argue that people with mental illness never get violent, nor that there isn’t an issue with employability. Yes, there are issues. The problems do exist, but not anywhere remotely near to the frequency that we think there to be. The truth is mental illness is common, diverse, and manifests differently from person to person. It’s also not static; it could happen to someone out of the blue, and others could suffer all their lives and recover successfully. Although we may be aware of these facts, it’s still not what we believe. An article in the Health Harvard publication states that “60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else”. The numbers weren’t that much better for other forms of mental illnesses. Of course, the article goes on to clarify that this public perception does not reflect reality. Ironically enough, it is only a reality in our minds.
It is truly baffling that the stigma is so strong when reality says otherwise. We all know there are plenty of individuals with mental illness that are successful, productive members of society who do not resemble the fearsome image. There’s Kurt Vonnegut, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, SyIvia Plath, Emma Thompson, Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin, Leo Tolstoy, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Stephen Fry, Elton John; I truly could go on. It is not only the famous, there are plenty of everyday individuals with mental illness who do not fit that image either. One in five Canadians either has or will develop mental illness at some point in their lives. The number is not too different everywhere else in the world. That’s 20% of the population. They are people you meet every day. People you like. People you care about. How many of the 20% are violent and not to be trusted? Let’s be real: it’s not many.
Even after learning the facts, why does stigma continue to overpower our minds? Perhaps the Psychologists are on to something. Evolutionary Psychologists talk about a negativity bias that is hard wired into our brain that encourages us to remember more of the bad, and less of the good for our own survival. According to the theory, there was a greater need for our ancestors to remember the negative for immediate survival. Stumbling upon a lion, bumping into a bear, confrontation with a cobra: these were more urgent images to remember than finding a delicious pear. Thus our brains are wired to focus on the negative while largely ignoring the positive. Perhaps this explains our thinking when it comes to mental illness. Our defensive minds may feel much more comfortable associating mental illness with a violent intruder rather than thinking of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata.
On par with Evolutionary Psychologists, Cognitive Psychologists also tell us something similar to the above. They tell us we are prone to using something called the availability heuristic when making quick judgments. We tend to place a significant amount of importance on information that we can easily recall. If something is readily available in our mind, we are happy to believe it despite its validity. Perhaps that makes some sense in the context of mental illness. The woman shouting profanity on the bus, the homeless alcoholic on the street, and the constant headlines associating mental illness with violent offenders are the images that are readily available. That’s the image that we automatically recall. Penetrating the wall of stigma, the faint murmur of individuals that contribute positively to society are not recalled. The many stories of everyday individuals battling their illness in silence, those we don’t even hear. No, we automatically think of the most negative examples. The ones that didn’t receive necessary support and treatment, in part due to the crippling stigma.
So as it appears, our seemingly rational mind is also quite unreliable. Despite the facts, we continue to perpetuate the stigma. In a hurry, we make judgments that aren’t always accurate. We jump to the most desperate examples. When it comes to mental illness, mostly, it is our judgments that are flawed. What lesson can we learn from this? As simple as this may sound, perhaps we could all benefit from less judgment, and more curiosity. That’s the way forward.
SidebySide is an educator, writer and a passionate advocate of mental health. She currently maintains a blog where she writes about her experience as a family member supporting (and being supported by) someone living with mental health challenges. She's also a part of Healthy Minds Canada's social media team and is currently volunteering with the Toronto Distress Center.