Stigma and Mental Illness

By David Trend

“The more I became immersed in the study of stigmatized mental illness, the more it astonishing to me that any such phenomenon should exist at all,” writes Robert Lundin, a member of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research. “I believe that serious and persistent mental illnesses, like the one I live with, are clearly an inexorably no-fault phenomena that fully warrant being treated with the same gentleness and respect as multiple-sclerosis, testicular cancer or sickle-cell anemia.”[i] Here Lundin names a central of problem in the social construction of mental illness: the misunderstanding of conditions affecting the mind as somehow different from other biological illness. The misrecognition renders mental illness prone to the judgmental attributions discussed by Susan Sontag in her 1973 book Illness as Metaphor.  To Sontag, contemporary society reverses ancient views of sickness as a reflection of the inner self.  In this new view, the inner self is seen as actively causing sickness––through smoking, overeating, addictive behavior, and bad habits: “The romantic idea that disease expresses the character is invariably extended to exert that the character causes the disease–because it is not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking within the deepest cellular recesses.”[ii] But as before, the sick person is to blame for the illness.

Such sentiments are especially vindictive when a mentally ill person commits a crime. Understandably perhaps, clinical terms like “mental illness” quickly acquire malevolent meanings in the public mind––even though the mentally ill statistically are no more prone to criminality than anyone else. Sometimes this semiotic slippage causes public panic over commonplace disorders. Consider the case of Adam Lanza, the young man who in 2013 shot 26 children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. While mental health analysts speculate that an acute psychotic episode prompted his violence, Lanza never had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As reporters scrambled for a story, much was made of Lanza’s childhood symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The repeated mention of this disorder in news coverage triggered wrong-headed fears nationally of the murderous potential in other autistic kids. According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in 50 people (1.5-million) fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, 80 percent of whom are boys.[iii] This has prompted improved diagnostic measures, which in turn have resulted in an apparent rise in autism cases in recent years––up 78 percent from a decade ago––and made autism a source of acute anxiety for many new parents. Continue reading “Stigma and Mental Illness”

Flexibility Stigma

Flexibility stigma is a term scholars use to describe work places that punish those who don’t fit the “ideal worker” profile: solely devoted to one’s job, available 24 hours a day and traditionally male. studies suggest that in academe, such biases are very prevalent in the sciences, and that women with young children are the most frequent targets — hence a “leaky,” gendered  pipeline.images

But a new study discussed in InsideHigher Ed “argues that both men and women with small children report and resent inflexible department cultures. The study also finds that even non-parents resent flexibility stigma, with negative consequences for the department over all.  “Much of the flexibility stigma literature presumes that it is mothers rather than fathers whose parenthood obligations are more likely to trigger stigma,” the study says. “In contrast, we find that flexibility stigma is not just a mother’s problem; mothers and fathers of young children are equally likely to report the presence of flexibility stigma in their departments.”

“It continues: “Related, we find that perceived flexibility stigma is negatively related to desires to remain in one’s position, overall satisfaction, and feelings of work-life balance over and above [researchers’ emphasis] gender, family status, and career-relevant variables.” The study, called “Consequences of Flexibility Stigma Among Academic Scientists and Engineers,” was published in the most recent Work and Occupations journal. (The full study is available to subscribers only, but an abstract is available here.) Lead author Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, said she wanted to look at the “mismatch” between outdated, 9-to-5-type expectations for workers and their actual needs, and the consequences of that mismatch. She said that doing so in an academic environment, where workers exhibit devotion to their jobs and scheduling flexibility is relatively high, would be a good place to start.

Continue reading “Flexibility Stigma”

OK2TALK vs. mental health stigma

OK2TALK is a media campaign to reduce mental health stigma among teens and young adults.

A new survey from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) reveals that two-thirds of young adults have personal experience with mental health problems, states

“Although the overwhelming majority of parents and young adults are supportive of discussing mental illness more openly, more than one-fourth


of young adults (28 percent) and one in six parents (16 percent) admit they avoid talking about it.

“To encourage these critical conversations and let people know that help is available and effective, NAB today unveiled a new public service announcement (PSA) campaign featuring teens and young adults opening up about their experiences with mental illness. The “OK2TALK” campaign includes television and radio ads in English and Spanish, and uses social media to invite teens and young adults to create the conversation about mental health.

“With unrivaled reach into homes across America, broadcasters have a powerful platform to encourage young people to start talking about mental health and get the help they need,” said NAB President and CEO Gordon H. Smith. Smith’s own family has been profoundly affected by mental illness. His 22-year-old son, Garrett, took his own life in 2003, after a long struggle with depression. He and his wife, Sharon, hope that encouraging conversation about mental illness helps keep other families from meeting the same fate: “I believe that had we known better the signs of suicidal tendency, and sought help and treatment earlier for Garrett, our son would still be alive today.” Continue reading “OK2TALK vs. mental health stigma”

Alzhheimer’s, dementia, and stigma

In a time of medical breakthroughs, where cures are created for many conditions that were once terminal, it’s easy to forget that some conditions are still incurable and almost impossible to prevent or slow down, reports the Irish Times.

“Longer life expectancy means that by 2041 there will be 1.4 million people in Ireland aged 65 and over, making up 22 per cent of the population.


“Dementia and old age go hand in hand so the number diagnosed with dementia is expected to increase three-fold to more than 120,000 in the next 30 years. Currently, there are nearly 42,000 people living with dementia in Ireland.

“Alzheimer’s disease, a common form of dementia, causes memory loss and there is very little medically that can be done. Certain drugs may slow down the progression of the condition, but they are not a cure. The World Alzheimer Report 2012 looked at the stigma attached to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Families and friends often don’t know how to deal with it, which creates feelings of isolation and exclusion for people with dementia.  Continue reading “Alzhheimer’s, dementia, and stigma”

Migraines and stigma

Migraine patients face the same overall degree of stigma that is attached to epilepsy, although they may experience less discrimination, according to two studies reported in Medpage, as excerpted below:

“An Internet-based survey of 705 individuals quizzed on their attitudes toward patients with epilepsy, migraine, and other conditions indicated that levels of stigma — such as beliefs that such people would make poor work colleagues or dinner party guests — were similar between epilepsy and migraine, said Robert Shapiro, MD, PhD, of the University of Vermont in Burlington.imgres-1

“Separately, questionnaires distributed to 123 patients with episodic migraine, 123 with chronic migraine, and 62 with epilepsy indicated similar self-perceived levels of stigma associated with episodic migraine and epilepsy, according to William Young, MD, of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and colleagues. Both studies were reported at the International Headache Congress.

“Chronic migraine patients scored substantially higher on the Stigma Scale for Chronic Illness (SSCI) than either of the other two groups — mean 54.0 (SD 20.2) versus 41.7 (SD 14.8) for episodic migraine and 44.6 (SD 16.3) for epilepsy — but that appeared to be driven by the chronic migraine patients’ genuinely reduced ability to work, the researchers indicated. Continue reading “Migraines and stigma”

New Pew study of LGBT Americans

There is good news, and there is not-so-good news. An overwhelming share of America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults (92%) say society has become more accepting of them in the past decade and an equal number expect it to grow even more accepting in the decade ahead, reports the Pew organization today.  “They attribute the changes to a variety of factors, from people knowing and interacting with someone who is LGBT, to advocacy on their behalf by high-profile public figures, to LGBT adults raising families.images-1

“At the same time, however, a new nationally representative survey of 1,197 LGBT adults offers testimony to the many ways they feel they have been stigmatized by society. About four-in-ten (39%) say that at some point in their lives they were rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 30% say they have been physically attacked or threatened; 29% say they have been made to feel unwelcome in a place of worship; and 21% say they have been treated unfairly by an employer. About six-in-ten (58%) say they’ve been the target of slurs or jokes. Continue reading “New Pew study of LGBT Americans”

That crazy time of year

Spring has sprung, at least for most of us, which means sundresses, seersucker and boozy croquet parties on the front lawn. Goodbye happy lamp, hello mimosa.

But it’s not just champagne that’s lifting our spirits and banishing the wintertime blues. According to (and a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, Harvard and Johns Hopkins) mental illnesses — such as obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anorexia — are far more seasonal than we think.

“The epidemiologists, led by John Ayers, combed through every Google search performed in the United States and Australia between 2006 and 2010, looking for queries like “symptoms of” and “medications for” OCD, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, depression, anorexia, bulimia and schizophrenia.images-2

“The Internet, the authors note in a study forthcoming in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is “the world’s most relied-on health resource. Because of mental health’s complexity, stigma, and obstacles to care, patients are likely to investigate their problems online.” At the same time, tracking a population’s longterm mental health indicators is difficult for epidemiologists; phone surveys are often unreliable — would you want to discuss the voices in your head with a complete stranger? — and cost prohibitive. Google queries, on the other hand, are nakedly honest and free to collect. Continue reading “That crazy time of year”