Stigma by niusheng11


									                                             WHITE PAPER
                                  Removing the Stigma of Mental Disorders

                                         Carson J Spencer Foundation

What do the following people have in common?
Buzz Aldrin (astronaut)
Peter Gabriel
Ted Turner
Isaac Newton
Ben Stiller
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Carrie Fisher

They all have experienced the manic highs and depressive lows of bipolar disorder. Many celebrities are
swinging open the doors of mental illness, and using their experiences as a way to remove the stigma that
hurts so many. Mike Wallace of 60 minutes experienced a number of debilitating bouts of depression
leading to a suicide attempt before he disclosed his recovery in an HBO documentary “Dead Blue:
Surviving Depression.” Mariette Hartley, best known for her Emmy winning performances in The
Incredible Hulk co-founded the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention after several family members
completed or attempted suicide. Like her family, Mariette also has bipolar disorder. She regularly speaks
publicly but admits, “Bipolar disorder is something that is mine, and it is very difficult to talk about.
Breaking the silence has been really wrenching for me; I went into a kind of depression wondering if I
really wanted to talk about all this. I finally decided that education is more important.” (USA Today,

         The Best and the Brightest: Dangerous Gifts within the Mental Disorder Continuum

“Men have called me mad,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is
or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not
spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect."

History shows us repeatedly1, 2, 3, some of our best and brightest often experience bouts of clinical
depression, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia. Famous artists such as Vincent Van Gough, Jackson
Pollack, and Georgia O’Keefe had major mood disorders. Some of our most notable writers’ depression
led to suicide: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath. One large scale study1 looked at over
1000 men and women who had lived in the 20th century and were known for the eminence in the areas of
arts, sciences, and other social activities. This research concluded that as adults, between 59% and 77% of
these top artists, writers and musicians suffered from mental disorders at some point in their lives. In the
sciences too, there is a steep rise in the suicide rate of our top scientists between the ages of 60 to 70 years.

In its most severe form, mania is incredibly debilitating and life threatening. Many have cautioned about
the trend to romanticize mental illness may lead to people to trivialize its impact by associating it with
creativity. Creativity is clearly impeded when mental illnesses are in their most severe states. There is
nothing romantic about fighting for your life in these situations.

That said, mental disorders like most other human conditions exist on a continuum. Mild episodes of
mania, called “hypo-mania,” can enhance the fluency and frequency of creative thoughts, according to Dr.
Kay R. Jamison, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of Touched with
Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993, Free Press). Obviously, not all
innovative and dynamic people have bipolar disorder, and not all people with bipolar disorder are creative,
but there are a number of areas of overlap. Many in both groups tend to be emotionally fine-tuned. That is,
they are sensitive to a wide variety of social and emotional stimuli both from outside and within. Many
people in both groups also abuse substances, in many cases to tone down these emotional states. On one
hand, the disinhibition of both groups often lends itself to new associations and creative problem solving.
On the other hand, both groups can also channel an unusual intensity of focus over an extended period of

                                The Effects of the Stigma of Mental Illness

“Stigma” is defines as the mark of shame leading to the rejection by others. The stigma of mental illness is
real and its effects are devastating. Thirty years ago, people whispered the word “cancer,” because there
was a great deal of fear and shame surrounding these illnesses. Today, cancer is talked about openly and
people are much more likely to be identified early and receive effective treatment. In fact, survivors of
cancer are often celebrated as heroes. People with mental health issues face the same discriminating stigma
today that cancer patients did not too long ago whether it is in the workplace, social setting, or access to
appropriate treatment. The term “mental illness” itself may contribute to the stigmatization because it
implies a distinction from physical illness, which is seen as more legitimate and not “in one’s head.” It is
no surprise then that less than one-third of sufferers ever seek treatment (Mental Illness Research

When someone appears to be different in one way or another, a natural reaction is to view that person in a
stereotypical manner. Mental illness is largely an invisible illness, which lends itself to much negative
projection and assumptions. Usually, the only way to know whether or not someone has a mental illness, is
if they disclose this information. Most people do not readily share this information because of the
discrimination and personal shame they experience. Despite decades of brain research to the contrary,
many people still believe that mental disorders are the result of moral shortcomings and problems with

When people have a physical illness that manifests itself in an organ of the body other than the brain, they
usually go to a doctor, expect to get well, and continue on with their life. People whose brains are affected
are not as likely to follow down this same path because they fear rejection from friends, family, co-workers
and neighbors. They are concerned about being denied adequate housing, work opportunities, and loans.
The media, both news and entertainment, has inflamed the stereotype between mental illness and violence;
one that does not bear out by the statistics. The mentally ill are far more likely to hurt themselves or be
hurt by others than they are to inflict violence (Levin, 2005 Psychiatric News, p. 16), and yet almost 40%
of newspaper stories about mental illness focus on danger and crime. The truth is the mentally ill are 11
times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than the general population.

The stigmatizing images of mental illness appear to and affect children at a young age. For instance, the
popular group N’Sync created a music video called “I Drive Myself Crazy” in which psychiatric patients in
straitjackets perpetuate the image of the mentally ill as frightening and shunned from society (National
Mental Health Association, 2005). These stereotypes inevitably create obstacles that prohibit people from
getting the help they need.

The stigma affects people in two directions. On the outside, the public part of the stigma creates prejudice
and discrimination that become real barriers for people in need of help. On the inside, it creates a negative
self image that corrodes one’s self-esteem and sense of hope, often leading to a downward spiral of
functioning and isolation (Levin, 2001 Psychiatric News, p. 8).

                                          Combating the Stigma

Internationally, there is a movement afoot to erase the discrimination so many people with mental illness
face and to promote mental health, yet much remains to be done. In the UK, a national campaign
developed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists called “Changing Minds” has been launched to change
people’s attitudes toward the mentally ill. A national advocacy group called SANE has been operating
since 1986 to provide a helpline and celebrate the gifts of the mentally ill ( . The
Canadian Mental Health Association has also actively tried to combat the stigma of mental illness through
workplace campaigns such as “Mental Health Works” (

In the United States, the U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher noted, “Stigma has its fingerprints all over
the system,” referring to the discrimination within our health system affecting the way we pay for and
coordinate mental health services. Rosalynn Carter and her advocacy efforts through the Carter Center’s
Mental Health Program is focusing on mental health policy in our country to achieve equity for mental
health care comparable to other health care. The National Mental Health Association has set up a stigma
watch (1-800-969-NMHA) and will respond to all reported stigmatizing incidents that are broadcast or
distributed nationally.

Recently, the National Institute of Mental Health developed a campaign called “Real Men, Real
Depression” ( to let men know that it takes courage to ask for help
and that effective treatment is available.

  Ludwig, A. (1995) The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. NY:
Guilford Press:

Jamison, K. (1996) Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

Jamison, K. (1997) The Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

                           National Mental Health Association
                           National Alliance on Mental Illness
                          National Institute of Mental Health

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