Doerzman: Removing stigma of ‘mental illness’

Kevin Doerzman

When you hear the word “psychiatric hospital,” what do you think of? Do you think of a place for insane people who pose a danger to themselves and everyone around them? I’ve been to one, and it’s anything but that. It’s a place to get the necessary help in time of crisis. When I share that with people I’ve become comfortable with, they get the same solemn expression on they face and the same hollow tone in their voice. It’s come to my attention in psychology classes that often a stigma is attached to those who have been diagnosed and treated for mental illnesses — for example, mood disorders such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and a whole slue of other mental illnesses.

The term “mental illness” has negative connotation in itself. It almost sounds like someone doesn’t have the mental capacity or intelligence to be able to function properly in a social world. When the American Psychiatric Association first published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many of the terms used in the book were negative or derogatory. For example, contemporary versions of the manual have IQ scales that determine mental retardation. Before the second edition, more pejorative terms such as “morons,” “imbeciles,” and “idiots” were used to identify mental retardation. Yet most diagnosed with a type of mental retardation are capable of taking care of themselves and being economically independent.

Mental illnesses can also cause issues in the workplace. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, those diagnosed with a mental illness are two to three times more likely to be unemployed. In popular belief, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and others are thought to be more dangerous than they really are. With proper behavioral therapy and medication, those diagnosed with mood disorders can function to the same level as those not diagnosed. The dangers of mental illness are sometimes blown far out of proportion. Someone can be tacked with a mood disorder or some other mental illness only because they show minor symptoms. It’s normal for everyone to be sad, nervous, or angry every once in awhile. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re suicidal or psychotic.

There’s a lot of sociological research about the stigmas of mental illness once someone is discharged from a psychiatric unit. I remember reading one article during a sociology course last semester about a mother who returned home after staying in the hospital for treatment. Upon returning home, she was almost instantaneously treated different, like some sort of omen surrounded her or that she was inflicted with a contagious virus. Too often, people will look at the fact that one has received treatment for something like bipolar disorder and translate that to, “Look out! This person is emotionally unstable!” It’s disappointing when a family acts as if they’ve met a stranger when they should be giving their unconditional support.

In all honesty, mental health issues can be hard to manage, but it’s all about figuring out what is necessary to make life easier. There are so many options out there, for example: medication, behavioral therapy, group therapy, psychiatric units, etc. Once their life has gotten back on track, they are as capable — and in some cases are more capable — in certain fields. Some are teachers and doctors and others are police officers and engineers. A therapist could even be diagnosed with some form of a disorder. Instead of trying to find some shortcoming in the person, we should focus more on acceptance and understanding. We need to provide all the support and help that is needed. When we look at the people around us, friends or family, we see their faces and we know that person as more than a diagnosis. So why is it that some only see a nametag with their diagnosis written on it?

Kevin Doerzman is a sophomore in psychology from Burlington, Iowa.