10 Stupid Stigmas Surrounding Mental Illness

10 Stupid Stigmas Surrounding Mental Illness


Stigma Mental IllnessIt gets old hearing male douchebags use the term “bipolar” when describing a girl—or a guy—they’re dating as emotionally unstable. “She’s so bipolar,” a guy will say in response to the girl who calls him obsessively or cries and rages a lot. But does he really know what bipolar disorder is? Is it fair to slap a label like that on anyone who displays any signs of instability? No; it’s an ignorant and insensitive assessment. It’s also not fair to assume that just because someone is bipolar they can’t be a partner in a healthy and happy committed relationship.

This is one of many stigmas and fallacies surrounding mental illness that I’m going to bulldoze in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month. My intention is to put a dent in the general idiocy I’ve heard over the years about mental disorders, usually by laypeople. Obliterating stigmas is important for a whole host of reasons, not the least because when people feel ashamed of their symptoms they may hesitate to seek treatment or be honest with their loved ones about their struggles.

Here are 10 stupid stigmas to do away with.

1. “Mentally ill people are dangerous. Stay away!

Evidence has proven this is far from the truth. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, only three to five percent of violent crimes are committed by people suffering from mental illness. In fact, persons with a psychiatric diagnosis are far more likely to be victims of violence than the average individual, as noted by the American Psychiatric Association.

2. “Depressed people can drag themselves out of the mire if they really wanted to. It’s all a matter of willpower.”

Tell that to someone whose cognition has slugged so bad they can’t open the mail or even respond to emails. Scientists agree that in many cases depression stems from biological roots, be it solely through a chemical imbalance—usually a deficiency in serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine—or environmental stressors that alter neural networks. It’s true that psychological treatment through things like CBT can assist tremendously with depression, in addition to medication, but it is still a condition that requires professional help and not just sheer power of will.

3. “Schizophrenics are scary…I think. Wait. What is schizophrenia again? Wait. I don’t want to know.”

This is not something I hear explicitly, but it’s a sentiment often revealed when I inform people that my sister is schizophrenic. I’ll tell them straight-up about her condition with the intent to end the stubborn stigma surrounding illness, and they usually react fearfully. Some bulge their eyes and others divert their gaze to some object or person in the periphery. Rarely will anyone ask further questions, inquire how she’s doing or ask for more information about schizophrenia. And they could use more information since only about 25% of people in the US have an informed grasp on it.

4. “ADHD or ADD is a Bullshit Made-Up Diagnosis so Big Pharma Can Get Rich. And if this isn’t true it’s because our kids are eating too much sugar.”

These are the words of someone who has never experienced an inability to either sit still or keep track of their wallet, keys, homework assignments, bills and important dates on a calendar despite arduous efforts to do so. Plenty of kids eat processed crap and aren’t diagnosed with ADHD or ADD. I can speak from personal experience that despite cutting out sugar and eating a diet rich in veggies, complex carbs, and lean proteins, including brain-boosting salmon, it still takes me an hour to empty the dishwasher because I’m constantly distracted into doing three or four simultaneous tasks. During this time, it’s like I’m in a blackout—I don’t even realize I’m doing it. Usually, it’s my roommate who points it out.

If you need more substantiation, you can check out the evidence presented by science. If you need even further substantiation, my high school homeroom teacher can vouch that I locked my keys in the car four times in one semester. By the fourth time, I’d used up all my AAA privileges, so Mr. Jones went out with a hanger and unlocked the car himself.

That time, the engine was still running.

5. “People with mental illness can’t have happy marriages or relationships.”

This is a crock of shit, plain and simple. When mental illness is actually treated, which happens when people don’t brush it off as being a mind-over-matter problem, many sufferers can function at high levels. Usually, treatment includes a combo of medication and some sort of therapy, but a rigorous exercise regime, eating well, sleeping well, and having a solid support network can also work wonders. By remaining aware of your symptoms, triggers and patterns, you can really even out, sometimes winding up more self-aware and self-controlled than “normal” people.

6. “People who get suicidal are selfish.”

This is perhaps one of the worst lies surrounding mental illness. After Robin Williams hanged himself, a few bloggers went on record stating Williams was selfish to take his own life given he has kids. Some of my classmates in my college lit classes felt the same way about Sylvia Plath. Unfortunately, these judgments fail to take into an account that a nosedive into a deep suicidal depression shatters your logic and can lead to a full-on break from reality or psychosis. In this state, thoughts like “But I have to be there for my kids” are drowned out by thoughts like “They’d be better off without me.” Trust me, I’ve been there.

7. “People with mental illness make bad employees—don’t hire them.”

I’ve heard hiring managers say things like this. Fortunately, this discrimination is completely against the law as people with mental illness are protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Not only is it illegal to reject a job applicant because they have a mental illness, it’s misinformed to assume they can’t kick ass at their work. As I said regarding relationships, people with mental illness can often function highly when treated. And when they need reasonable accommodations to succeed, they—like someone with a physical disability—are entitled to it. At least according to federal law.

8. “A psych unit is a scary loony bin!”

I beg to differ, not just because I’ve had many stints in the psych unit, but also because these wards aren’t loony bins at all, and, by the way, that’s a horribly offensive term. If you actually visit one, you’ll see many people are lucid and just needing some extra support, and there will likely be a group of elderly patients being treated for depression or other cognitive issues. Often patients check themselves in to remain safe if they’re feeling suicidal or want a med change.

But for those who are in a more acute state, be it severe mania or schizophrenic psychosis, assuming they’re “loony” and “scary” is just plain ignorant. Before you judge, visit a unit and see for yourself. These are people, not monsters.

The scariest thing in most psych units is the food.

9. “People with mental illness use their diagnosis as an excuse for all sorts of bad behavior.”

Sure, there may be a handful of people who use their diagnosis as a blanket excuse for acting like assholes, but most people I know take responsibility for themselves, specifically by getting treatment. Anyone who’s actually gotten a diagnosis has seen a clinician, so they’re trying to get help. Though you shouldn’t put up with anyone who’s mistreating you or flaking on their job, it’s also important to distinguish between the person and the illness. Encouraging someone to get extra support is far better than labeling them a “drama queen” or a “psycho.”

10. “Everyone’s diagnosed with bipolar these days if they are remotely moody. It, like ADD, is a bullshit.”

I’ve heard many people claim that bipolar disorder is hogwash, and I’ve read plenty of assertions by opinionators that the illness is complete bunk. “Everyone has ups and downs!” they exclaim, or they conclude that “bipolar people are just really moody.”

In truth, the illness manifests as a fluctuation between crippling, brain-stopping depression and hypomania or mania that spikes someone into euphoria, over-activity, or potentially psychosis. This is not the same as being cranky or generally “unstable,” as so many people seem to believe.

Point being, don’t assume bipolar people are just selfish jerks, and don’t assume people with the disorder are just making it up. You’d be surprised the lengths people go (ahem…yours truly) to hide the condition out of fear of being judged in more than one way.


About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.