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Stigma Towards Mental Illnesses by Jane Williams

Stigma Towards Mental Illnesses by Jane Williams

Jane Williams is a junior at San Marin High School. The following piece won a Gold Key, the highest award, in the Critical Essay category of the 2015 Western Region Scholastic Arts & Writing Contest, competing against high school students throughout the Western United States. Williams wrote the essay for the sophomore speech project in her English class.  It was published in the MarinScope online magazine.  

Cancer is not a joke. It’s a life-changing illness that almost everyone has been affected by, directly or not. Even if someone hasn’t been impacted by it, they can agree that it is serious and needs widespread attention so change can be made. Psychological illnesses, such as Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia, do not get the same consideration. One in twenty Americans lives with a mental illness (Mental Health Myths and Facts). However, society allows this suffering to be trivialized and mocked. Mental diseases are as consequential as physical ones, yet misconceptions are widely publicized by entertainment and news and absorbed by society. This ignorance causes stigma, directly impacting mentally ill people and their livelihoods. Everyone, both in the media and everyday conversations, should promote awareness and acceptance, rather than ignorance, of mental illnesses. Not having to deal with discrimination will allow mentally ill people to lead safer, healthier, and more successful lives.

Some people believe that psychiatric suffering is a cultural construct (Persistent Stigma, Skepticism About Mental Illnesses Causes Real Harm, Dr. Steve Scholzman). A few non-psychiatric doctors are not convinced it is real either. No lab tests, brain scans, or chemical imbalance tests can be done to verify a mental disorder as a condition. There is no evidence of the right balance of chemicals in the brain, so imbalances are impossible to prove or treat (Real Disease vs. Mental “Disorder”). All of this is misleading, as psychiatric disorders are real. Studies prove that mental illnesses are caused by a complex mix of social and psychological circumstances including bereavement, poverty, trauma, and abuse; many biological and genetic factors also contribute (Medicine’s Big New Battleground: Does Mental Illness Really Exist?, Jamie Doward). And treatment is possible. Many mental illnesses can be effectively treated with a combination of medication and various therapies (Mental Health Treatments). Those who received successful treatment were not making up their illnesses for attention or just in a bad mood for a few days. They experienced real pain, sought out real help, and achieved real results.

Our society learns and is influenced by both news and entertainment medias. Erroneous and stereotypical depictions of mental health are common in the entertainment realm, especially on television and in cartoons and films. Characters on TV with mental illnesses are usually shown as the most dangerous characters (Violence and Mental Illness: The Facts). A quarter of all mentally ill characters on United States television programs kill someone, and half are shown to hurt others. This portrayal is significantly more violent than other characters and most real people with mental illnesses. Television does little to demonstrate that people can recover or be productive members of society. Even cartoons display the mentally ill as objects of amusement, derision, and fear. The lack of specific symptoms or diagnoses invites negative generalizations of all mentally ill into the minds of young children (Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and Its Treatments, Dr. Heather Stuart). Movies convey similar trends. A study of forty films featuring a character with schizophrenia was done by Dr. Patricia R. Owen, a psychology professor at St. Mary’s University in Texas. She found that the majority of these characters were middle-aged white men, suffering mainly from delusions and hallucinations. Half displayed aggressiveness, and a significant portion were homicidal, both inaccurate representations of the disorder. Schizophrenia is only prevalent in one percent of Americans, affecting men and women equally, and common symptoms more probable than hallucinations are trouble focusing and social withdrawal. Schizophrenics are unlikely to be violent; they are often the victims themselves of such crimes. They frequently become isolated from their communities and face heavy prejudice and discrimination (Mental Illness in the Media is an Inaccurate Portrayal, Kirsten Orth). Even when the material broadcast is factual, negative characteristics are pushed on viewers. Many news stories on the topic of mental illness focus on the crimes and violence committed instead of recovery stories (Violence and Mental Illness: The Facts). Articles addressing everyday news often use incorrect terms. Arun Chopra, a psychiatrist at Queen’s Medical Center in Nottingham, England, remembers a woman, whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bursting into tears reading a newspaper article that described the weather as schizophrenic (OCD, Bipolar, Schizophrenic, and the Misuse of Mental Health Terms, Jon Kelly and Denise Winterman). This negative attitude towards the mentally ill in the media is both wrong and the cause of public stigmatizing beliefs and behaviors that destroy the livelihoods of numerous harmless individuals.

To read or print the full essay, click here.