Despite progress, mental illness stigma persists

In the last several years, I have noticed an increasing number of discussions surrounding mental illness. There is no doubt that stigma still exists, but I think, at least among young adults, it is less taboo to talk about it. This is unsurprising considering how common mental illness is and the efforts that have been made to share narratives and raise awareness. But this does not mean that there is not work still to be done. Fighting stigma is not just talking about it, it requires genuinely changing how you look at and interact with people who have a mental illness.

Just like overcoming any other implicit bias like racism or sexism, overcoming biases against people with mental illnesses requires a lot of work. Campaigns that aim to disprove myths about mental illness are a good start; these efforts lay out the facts, probe the public to examine their own biases and––perhaps most importantly––get people talking. But it is one thing to make a Facebook status about ending stigma or agreeing that yes, stigma is bad and based on incorrect stereotypes. It is another thing to put those beliefs into action.

I have seen people who are of the former category—they are self-aware of their biases and they know the stereotypes are wrong—who still find it OK to refer to someone who is obviously suffering as “crazy” or “psychotic.” Usually this isn’t a far-removed celebrity like Demi Lovato or Robin Williams, but someone they are relatively close to and, in most cases, someone who has irritated them in one way or another.

I want to ask these people, “Why, then, can you apply these ideas abstractly but not to people you actually know?” This is not to say that every bad thing a person with mental illness does must be excused by mental illness. It means not making fun of those who have trouble expressing themselves in class due to social anxiety––that’s just rude behavior anyway––or not calling your friend a flake if she keeps canceling on you because her seasonal depression has been difficult.

If someone with mental illness wrongs you in one way or another, it doesn’t mean you can call him or her crazy—it means they did something harmful. If they do it repeatedly, whether or not they are “psychotic” is probably not for you to determine. The stereotype that people with mental illness are violent is perpetuated enough as it is.

You do not get points for being progressive and fighting stigma when you only apply those principles when it is convenient for you. It is easy to say that depressed people aren’t just lazy or that people with bipolar disorder deserve sympathy. It is easy to do this when you are presented with an inspirational success story. It is even easy to say this of someone like Amanda Bynes who doesn’t affect your life.

It is much harder when it directly affects you, but the work of learning, unlearning and applying these ideas is conducive to larger change. It is really worrisome to hear psychology majors say that someone “needs to seek psychological help” when he or she says something ridiculous. I make a habit of assuming good intentions, but casual ableism is common; there are not as many people who are willing to do the unlearning as there are people who are willing to make a statement when it is convenient for them.

What actually ignites change is applying these ideas when you make judgments about people at their worst—when you understand that mental illness is just as legitimate as physical illness and that people suffering from any sort of disability deserve reasonable accommodations. No one chooses to be sick. Do the work to learn and unlearn and the world—or at least your circle of friends—will be better for it.