Stop Stigmatizing Those With Mental Illness

For generations words and remarks used to defame, belittle or embarrass another person often involved crude reference to abnormal conditions of the human mind. Use of such words and remarks is generally used to express anger, disapproval or make fun of perceived inappropriate actions, behavior, wrongdoing or illegal acts of another person.

In this present atmosphere of political correctness, there is little effort to avoid these stinging remarks that denigrate mentally ill individuals. These words and expressions are no more acceptable than the objectionable terms directed toward race, gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation. Educated people should know better but TV reporters, journalists, politicians, law enforcement and others in the public domain are routine offenders. Individuals and families dealing with mental illness abhor this lack of sensitivity and good judgment.

Words and phrases such as nut job, wacko, lunatic, crazies, funny farm, crazy person, psycho and many more are commonly used. Some high profile individuals get more creative and use actual mental health terms to further insult and put down someone. Terms like paranoid schizaphrenic have been used, while others use terms such as sick in the head and other euphemisms but are still insulting and offensive to the mentally ill and their families.

With regard to recent acts of violence in the news, mental illness has been targeted by many as the more probable cause. Consequently, a constant barrage of ugly words and remarks that further stigmatize the image of mental illness has been evident. Is it any wonder that anyone needing treatment for this type of illness shies away to avoid being tagged as one of these “sick” people? Consequently, not even half of persons needing treatment actually get or seek it.

Current knowledge indicates that a minuscule segment of individuals within the spectrum of brain dysfunction, known as sociopaths and psychopaths, represent a more problematic understanding of disturbing behavior and actions. Researchers postulate that persons within this realm of brain activity possess a congenital disconnect in brain function that prevents normal fear and consequences for any actions normally signaled as bad or inappropriate. Persons with these disorders are more prone to violent behavior and lack remorse or guilt. The DMS-5, official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, classifies these two disorders as Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Thankfully these disorders are considered rare in comparison to the better known and more common conditions such as Clinical Depression, Bipolar Depression and Schizophrenia.

Statistical evidence reveals that people with a mental illness are no more violent than the general population and are more often the victims of crime and violence than the perpetrators.

A Washington Post article on Oct. 6 addresses a myth that mental illness is behind most violence against others. The report states that national opinion polls show that the majority of Americans believe that mental illness, and the failure of the mental health system to identify those at risk of dangerous behavior, is a cause of gun violence.

Research says otherwise. Only an estimated 4 percent of violence against others is caused by the symptoms of serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Other factors such as anger, traumatic life events such as job loss or divorce and problematic alcohol use are all stronger risk factors for gun violence. Research also shows that mental health care providers are poor predictors of which patients will go on to harm others. Further, most people with mental illness will never become violent, and most gun violence is not caused by mental illness. But mental illness is a strong risk factor for fire arm suicide, which accounts for the majority of gun deaths in the United States.

The report goes on to state that improving the mental health system would benefit millions of people with mental illness but would not substantially reduce gun violence against others.

Advocates for the mentally ill will be undertaking a campaign to call out individuals who engage in using words and remarks that stigmatize the mentally ill. Hopefully the image of mental illness will escape the negative image held by past generations and finally be regarded as no different than any other disabling human illness.

Guest columnist Dr. Patricia J. Young, EdD, RN-BC, CNE, is president, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Greater Wheeling.