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Let’s Call Stigma What It Is—Prejudice and Discrimination
There’s a lot of talk in the mental health community around stigma. Stigma, stigma, stigma. It seems to be an advocate’s favorite word.
And it is both a powerful and appropriate word in the case of mental illness. Stigma is, “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach,” and that’s exactly how many people treat mental illness. They treat it as if it stains any person it touches.
But the problem with this really isn’t the stigma per se, it’s more the acts of what stigma causes—acts of prejudice and discrimination. Right in line with racism and sexism we have “mentalism.”
But we seem to run from the words prejudice and discrimination for some reason. As if the problem with people with a mental illness “isn’t that bad.” It’s as if this stigma doesn’t rise to the level of prejudice and discrimination—but of course it does, quite frequently, and in many facets of life.
People with Schizophrenia Receive Substandard Healthcare
For example, in his latest piece on the Huffington Post, Marvin Ross outlines a new study which shows that people with schizophrenia receive poorer healthcare than those without (and this is particularly alarming as people with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar have more healthcare concerns such as a greater rates of obesity and tobacco use).
In the study, mental healthcare professionals, primary care professionals, and nurses all showed a bias that negatively impacted treatment decisions. For example, in identical patients—one with schizophrenia and one without—the patient with schizophrenia was less likely to referred to a weight management program (in spite of being obese) and was less likely to be referred to a sleep clinic in spite of a clinical indication to do so.
Prejudice and Discrimination Run Rampant
And in a report by the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, the statistics of stigma and prejudice were astonishing.
- 39 percent of people would be embarrassed to tell others if they or someone in their family was diagnosed with schizophrenia
- 40 percent of people felt that discrimination was too strong of a term for avoidance of someone with a mental illness
- 32 percent of people said they would feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone with schizophrenia
- 7 percent of people felt that the best way to help those with schizophrenia was to remove them from society
Discrimination and Prejudice are Dirty Words – and Appropriate
I think the words “discrimination,” and “prejudice,” hold people more accountable for their stereotype-infused views and actions and that’s exactly what we should be doing. “Stigma” feels like a fluffy concept comparatively.
So yes, stigma is bad, but if I were to get rid of anything it would be the actions it produces. We, as a society, are better than that bad behavior. We, as people with mental illnesses, deserve better. And our advocates should be saying as much.