by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Some of us call it stigma. Some prefer prejudice or discrimination. Whatever one calls it most would agree that people with serious mental illnesses often are looked upon and sometimes treated unfavorably. Many of us with such diseases have been denied jobs, friendships, admission to college or grad school because of our illnesses. The denier may have called it something else, but we knew why. We learn early on to be quiet about our illness. It’s been said that we should speak out but only if we are over 65 and retired.

The reason for stigma is partly ignorance but only partly. A major reason is the dangerous and /or bizarre behavior we engage in mostly when untreated. When a seriously mentally ill individual is involved in a much publicized violent act people are repelled. Many advocacy organizations, eager to highlight the plight of families dealing with serious mental illness who have largely been abandoned by society, stress the danger to society of not treating the mentally ill. While this may help the cause it contributes to the stereotype of the violent lunatic.

Those people not convinced that every crazy person is a serious threat to become violent, are put off by bizarre behavior. The behavior may be upsetting, inexplicable or distasteful. People may be repulsed as some have said because they fear something similar happening to them. This may be why some refuse to believe mental illness actually exists. Whatever the reason, people are put of by our behavior when psychotic.

In a perfect world, education would be the key to ending stigma. Just cause it to become widely accepted that the bizarre behavior is a manifestation of a disease of a bodily organ not the intrinsic nature of the individual behaving bizarrely. It is the disease in control, not the person with the disease. It is only a small subset of the seriously mentally ill who become violent. To get the vast majority of the population to understand this and start regarding us with understanding and sympathy, I think, is unrealistic until our distasteful or dangerous behavior becomes much less common. How do we do this?

Treatment. Treatment. Treatment. Most of us will respond positively to some appreciable degree to treatment. There will, for the time being, be a need for asylums (in the best sense of the word) for those who will not yet respond well to any known treatment. Currently, many, many mentally ill people are not in treatment. How much stigma would there be if we were all being treated, dangerous or bizarre behavior was drastically reduced and those unresponsive to treatment were in asylums and not bouncing back and forth between life on the streets and jail?

Certainly education, understanding and the compassion granted those with diseases of any other organ is needed. I believe, however, that a key to ending stigma is much more treatment.

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