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The Stigma Against Mental Illness Won't Change Until the Message Does

16/05/2016 16:10 | Updated 16 May 2016

Few know the stigmatisation of mental illness better than the mentally ill themselves. From being told to just 'cheer up, love,' or over-hearing a colleague using the words 'mentally ill' disparagingly, or even missing out on employment opportunities after disclosing a mental illness, the stigma against mental illness is real and it is not going away.

It is those who haven't themselves experienced mental illness who are most likely to stigmatise it. Most are probably not even aware that what they are doing is stigmatising. This lack of insight, combined with a lack of understanding about mental illness, make it difficult for some people to empathise with the experiences of the mentally ill.

A distrust of the other, of the person who is not like us, is a propensity so ingrained in humans that it transcends time and culture. The disparity between the experience of the mentally healthy and the mentally ill leads, inevitably, to similar feelings of distrust. It takes a considerable amount of empathy to relate to the person who hears voices, or wants to harm themselves, and for some, these experiences are too at odds with their own experience for them to be able to put themselves in the other person's shoes.

But a lack of empathy is only part of a much more encompassing problem. Those who have not experienced mental illness do not choose this any more than the mentally ill do not choose to experience mental illness. Neither group can be held culpable for their lack of insight in to each other's worlds.

Instead, emphasis must be put on the lack of public understanding about mental illness, for it is this ignorance that contributes most greatly towards the perniciousness of stigma. Mainstream media is invariably inaccurate in its representation of mental illness, with mental illness seldom receiving coverage unless as the purported cause of violence or eccentricity.

How many people know that schizophrenics experience not only delusions and hallucinations, but also a raft of negative symptoms such as apathy and social withdrawal? Do they know that acts of violence committed by schizophrenics accounts for less than 10% of violent crime? Mainstream media turns these figures on their head.

Only relatively remarkable events make the news, but mental illness is not itself remarkable - around one in four people in the UK are experiencing a mental health problem at any one time. But to those unfamiliar with mental illness, their only exposure to schizophrenia, for example, is coloured by the horrific - and therefore newsworthy - circumstances in which it is reported. This kind of skewed reporting contributes to the belief that psychotic illnesses are inherently dangerous and that, by extension, so too are schizophrenics.

What is so troubling about the prevailing stigma against mental illness is that personal ignorance isn't at the root of the problem; societal ignorance, proliferated by mass media, is. Until information about mental illness is distributed in the media accurately and fairly, people will continue to buy in to negative beliefs about those with mental illnesses. Attempts at tackling the stigma from the ground up - through charities, campaigns, and employer pledges can only begin to make progress when those at the top change the messages they broadcast about mental illness.

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