I was trying to think about the all different reasons why someone might stigmatize mental health problems and also how others may try to change that persons attitude. Here is a list of all the reasons I could come up with:
1) Ignorance. They know little to nothing about mental health or psychology in general, so they have false assumptions about what it is, what causes it and how to treat it.
2) Jealousy. There are people who currently have or once had mental health problems themselves but did not receive adequate empathy or support for it, so they may feel jealous of the sympathy and support that others get for their problems.
3) Defence mechanisms. They themselves have mental problems and do not want to face or deal with them, so they use denial as a way of avoiding their own internal problem which in turn holds back social progress.
4) They mistakenly assume most if not all mental problems cause violence. At some point in time they have made a correlation between mental health and violence which doesn’t actually exist in the conventional sense anyway.
5) They mistakenly use a strength/weakness paradigm of evaluating all mental problems. They were raised to think in terms of “strong” and “weak” and see the world using black and white thinking in a borderline supremacist kinda way.
6) They mistakenly believe mental health problems relate to being “bad”, “wrong”, “defective”, “evil” or any other myth.
7) They mistakenly believe it’s primarily a problem of laziness.
8) They believe people are faking it, lying about it or doing it for attention
9) They refuse to accept that mental health problems exist as it may shatter some preconceived ideas about the brain, the mind, people or life in general.
10) They believe people are just doing it for attention
Attributes of a stigmatizer
Looking at the list of reasons I came up with we now have a better picture of the types of people who stigmatize and the attributes they seem to have:
– Ignorant, uneducated, little to no knowledge of psychology.
– Cynical, suspicious, unforgiving.
– Apathetic, antipathetic.
– Psychopathy, sociopathy, narcissism.
How to deal with this
Now I will try to give a short and to the point solution for responding to each of the reasons:
1) Ignorance. In theory education is the key here, but to deliver it in a way appropriate to that persons current level of understanding.
2) Jealousy. Empathy and understanding should be the best approach here. Also remind them that their jealousy is the proof that social progress is taking place.
3) Defence mechanisms. The irony here being a person is using psychological defence mechanisms to protect them from confronting psychological problems. What’s the antidote to irony, was it sarcasm or satire?
4) The violence assumption. On average, people with mental health problems are at a higher risk of being victims of violent crimes, but there is not significant statistical correlation between them being the perpetrator. Even if they were, wouldn’t getting treatment for their problems make them less likely to be violent?
5) The weak assumption – Ahhh the weak/strong paradigm. One of my top 5 favourite paradigms concerning mental health and as a former KKK member and part time Nazi the irony is not lost on me. Joking aside, it’s true that resilience is a favourable characteristic to have which is a protective factor against numerous mental problems, however some people did not develop that growing up due to several reasons. Either they had fewer protective factors than others, they had more stress and trauma to deal with or they had biological predispositions so it would be an unfair test to compare people in the first place. Secondly, even if they were weak, surely they should get more help and support to balance out this difference between people. Thirdly, a person who thinks in terms of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is seriously lacking in empathy which might indicate one of the dark triad of personality disorders (once again irony at work). Lastly it could be jealousy again in which case refer to point 2.
6) The bad assumption – Tell them to put down their holy book and read some Carl Jung instead. Besides, Jesus cared for people with physical ailments, would he not do the same with mental ones too? The mind being a function of the brain after all.
7) The laziness assumption. I guess you could show them a hanging corpse of a suicide victim, who I guess was just too lazy to stop feeling suicidally depressed. Alternatively, you could inform them that a significant amount of symptoms of mental health problems have little to nothing to do with laziness anyway. For example paranoid delusions and obsessive thoughts. What the hell has they got to do with laziness? So perhaps these people are referring to lack of energy, motivation or even sleeping problems which you might find in depression. This is point is more difficult to prove or disprove, so really it should be up to a trained professional to make that call. But if these symptoms are accompanied by others, such as social withdrawal, ruminating, frequent crying, appetite changes it would clearly indicate that it is a serious problem that needs addressing. As a final point, you could argue that the stigmatizers themselves are too lazy to become well versed in psychology and be up to date with the latest knowledge on brain functioning and all the related factors that affect it.
8) Malingering and factitious disorder do occasionally occur in mental health but it also appears in physical health too. A trained expert would be aware of these factors and be on the look out for them. Finally, even if one person is “faking it” that does not mean another person is and so stigma will unnecessarily and unfairly hurt the genuine cases (which are hundreds of millions of people worldwide).
9) Once again, denial and false belief systems. A combination of empathy and education should be the best approach.
Such is the nature of life that throughout history societies go through different phases and conflicts regarding a whole range of problems. One of the dominant themes of the modern era is replacing ignorance, apathy and antipathy with understanding, knowledge and empathy towards mental health problems. Some people “get it” whilst others do not. You may be able to convince some, but don’t expect to convince them all any time soon. Now go forth on your quest of destigmatization! You’ll need patience, perseverance and Pavlov (…proceeds to salivate over alliteration).