Combating Stigma

Everyone has stereotypes about various groups of people including those diagnosed with mental illnesses. As a volunteer in the Compeer Program, you may begin to have those stereotypes challenged. You will get a more accurate picture of what mental illnesses are like. An important role you play in your relationship is not to accept stereotypes, even if your friend does. By sharing with others your own experiences with someone diagnosed with a mental illness, you will begin to dispel the stereotypes and reduce the fears people have regarding mental illnesses.

Mental illness can strike anyone! It knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or color. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are affected by one or more mental disorders.

Medical science has made incredible progress over the last century in helping us understand, cure and eliminate the causes of many diseases including mental illnesses. However, while doctors continue to solve some of the mysteries of the brain, many of its functions remain a puzzle. Even at the leading research centers, no one fully understands how the brain works or why it malfunctions. However, researchers have determined that many mental illnesses are probably the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. These imbalances may be inherited, or may develop because of excessive stress or substance abuse.

It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all of our other organs, is vulnerable to disease. People with mental illnesses often exhibit many types of behaviors such as extreme sadness and irritability, and in more severe cases, they may also suffer from hallucinations and total withdrawal. Instead of receiving compassion and acceptance, people with mental illnesses may experience hostility, discrimination, and stigma.

Why does stigma still exist?

Unfortunately, the media is responsible for many of the misconceptions which persist about people with mental illnesses. Newspapers, in particular, often stress a history of mental illness in the backgrounds of people who commit crimes of violence. Television news programs frequently sensationalize crimes where persons with mental illnesses are involved.

Comedians make fun of people with mental illnesses, using their disabilities as a source of humor. Also, national advertisers use stigmatizing images as promotional gimmicks to sell products.

Ironically, the media also offers our best hope for eradicating stigma because of its power to educate and influence public opinion.

How can you combat stigma?

  • Share your experience with mental illness. Your story can convey to others that having a mental illness is nothing to be embarrassed about.
  • Help people with mental illness reenter society. Support their efforts to obtain housing and jobs.
  • Respond to false statements about mental illness or people with mental illnesses. Many people have wrong and damaging ideas on the subject. Accurate facts and information may help change both their ideas and actions.