When someone appears to be different than us, we may view him or her in a negative stereotyped manner. People who have identities that society values negatively are said to be stigmatized. Stigma is a reality for people with a mental illness, and they report that how others judge them is one of their greatest barriers to a complete and satisfying life. Society feels uncomfortable about mental illness. It is not seen like other illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Due to inaccuracies and misunderstandings, people have been led to believe that an individual with a mental illness has a weak character or is inevitably dangerous. Mental illness can be called the invisible illness. Often, the only way to know whether someone has been diagnosed with a mental illness is if they tell you. The majority of the public is unaware of how many mentally ill people they know and encounter every day.
If you want MY definition of stigma, it basically comes down to being judged not on the merits of a person with a mental illness, but by a perception of what mental illness is like that is founded not on any medical knowledge or experience with people who happen to have a mental illness. That is through ignorance.
In my experience in dealing with stigma, it comes in all forms. The obvious ones are reacting out of fear of violence or that a person with a mental illness is likely to be a criminal, or that they will otherwise be “unstable” and in some way less of a person than a “normie.” I’ve experienced mental health professionals who I felt contributed to stigma. One psychiatric nurse I met at one time felt that there were no “poster childs” for the mentally ill, which I found truly sad.
I have told the story of my conference in Quebec city where a professor was absolutely stunned with the news that I was schizophrenic. This too I feel was stigma even though I noted it was an entirely positive experience for me. It simply did not occur to someone with some knowledge of mental health that a person could happen to have a severe mental illness and appear “normal” to him.
I think actually this may be the hardest part of stigma. That mental illness cannot be on some level “normal,” even though one in five Canadians will face such challenges in their lifetime. And that’s one of the reasons I blog here about the mental illness I happen to have, because I think that there is nothing wrong with me except that I have a serious but managed condition. Oh and that I am pretty beyond words, but thankfully that doesn’t go to my head.
If you want me to define what would be the end of stigma, it would be if anyone who happens to have a mental illness could simply tell anyone they need to be it their boss, their coworker, their family, their friends, someone they were dating–anyone–and it simply be reacted the same way as if they said “I have diabetes.” They would also themselves have to feel like they were saying “I have diabetes.” Until that day comes there is still stigma.