Like the common cold, mental illness affects everybody, yet there is a stigma attached to the later illness but not the former. Why is that?
It is a curious bias.
We value the ability to act rationally consequently, people whose mental capacity appears impaired and confused are potentially a threat to themselves and to others because they misrepresent reality.
What is reality?
Before we start getting philosophical, let's be reasonable. Generally speaking, the belief that some people suffer from mental illness and others enjoy perfect health is a delusion because we are essentially confusing the mere perception of what it means to be intelligent with perceptions about mental health, and there is no scientific basis for that. Intelligence is not even a criterion for being Chief Justice, let alone President of the United States, so why would anybody use mere perception to stigmatize another?
To the degree that everybody is prone to be unreasonable at some point, mental illness is a typical component of mental health, just like the common cold is a typical component of physical health. Consequently, we should challenge the mental stability of those who stigmatize rather than those who are stigmatized. After all, is it appropriate to blame the ill, in any capacity, for a condition which requires treatment or understanding, beyond all else.
Clearly, as a society, the only appropriate thing for us to do is to provide the assistance and support that is necessary and essential to help anybody who suffers a physical or mental illness, to cope with whatever ails them/us.
If we do not treat mental and physical illness in a similar manner it is because the later is widely misunderstood.
Indeed, the line between rational and irrational thinking is very thin, it is crossed every single day without consequence and it should therefore not be a surprise that we live in a world that is essentially bat shit crazy.
Mental illness is consequently a common, human disease that afflicts everybody in one form or another and we should stop pretending otherwise.
It is consequently quite clear that the stigma of mental illness must be replaced with the understanding that mental health is an issue of common and constant concern (like the common cold) and if you/we stigmatize anybody in that regard you are madder than you think.
Mental illness is fully occupied territory (because it afflicts everybody) and we will never erase the stigma through politically correct posturing. For example, the phrase "mental retardation" was replaced by "mentally challenged" and we have now gone a step above and beyond the call of duty, to bury every acknowledgement of mental illness through the catch-all phrase, "special needs".
Instead of pretending that mental health issues affect some but not others, we need to realistically accept our own faults and limitations before we are in a position to assess those of another. For that reason, mental illness is simply the realization that mental health is in fact about our own personal challenges, the opportunity to denounce the mental stability of somebody we do not like, understand or agree with, reflects more about us than them.
Historically speaking, views about mental illness have not changed very much, we merely find a way to change the manner in which we demonize. The target may be different as we change our cultural views but the methods remain the same. We continue to demonize and to stigmatize and it is simply time to end the pretense that we dealing with the issue any differently than it was in the past.
Stigma will always be attached to mental illness if the perception that it is exclusively somebody else's infliction persists. To repeat, in some form or another, mental illness affects everybody and there is consequently no reason to perceive or to treat it differently from any other malady.
There is almost always a reason (except where serious brain damage is involved) people behave in an irrational fashion, most self-adjust without getting formal treatment and the tendency to isolate or to demonize perceived abnormalities (if that's what they are) is rather extreme. In most instances (and I repeat that thought for emphasis) it is those who stigmatize rather than those who are stigmatized, who show signs of mental illness, and when that is widely acknowledged there will be no more stigmatization.
History provides some interestig insights about mental illness. Plato's view that injustice is madness and that justice is health has some merit, as does his view that self-deception or ignorance of the self is a form of mental illness. Perhaps the modern equivalent of Plato's vision is the common, psychological view that self-knowledge is the best form of therapy, and judging from the fact that most people survive without formal therapy, there is merit in that view as well. The other possibility is that many people survive their mental illnesses through mere destraction and they never develop a complete understanding of what ails them.
Another interesting view tht Plato held is that the drive for power, great pride and overwhelming passion are a form of mental illness, and that certainly widens the field of the afflicted, beyond current, conventional wisdom. The popular belief that one needs to exhibit signs of delusion to be called mentally ill, does not appear to be very reliable. With education and commonly shared knowledge on the decline, even an alleged delusion can be based on a solid foundation of fact that is not widely recognized, and that makes old models of assessing mental illness rather problematic.
New models are no less problematic. For example, if people assume that all "special needs" are about mental issues, then somebody in a wheelchair who is physically handicapped will be unfairly doubted for their mental capacity.
At the risk of being repetetive, we must all treat mental health issues head on and to be precise enough to firmly acknowledge the fact that it is those who stigmatize without reason, who exhibit signs of mental illness. The harm of the opportunity to stigmatize is too serious to ignore, and we must turn the tables on those who implicitly emphasize their so-called stability by inappropriately challenging that of another.
People with special needs as they are currently defined require both special access and the understanding that their needs are not unlike those of everybody else, and it is vitally important to fully appreciate their worth as human beings because they are easily taken advantage of when they become invisible targets of stigmatization.
Clearly, the only reason we are not all mental patients is that some have been labelled, appropriately or not, while the vast majority have never received the formal treatment they require.
The reason mental hospitals were shut down is that they maintained a vicious stigmatization circle but they evidently threw out the baby with the bathwater because we have still not discarded the tendency to isolate through ostracization, stigmatization and dehuminization.
Consequently, as long as mental illness is viewed to be a negative trait rather than a common affliction, the ignorant will continue to exploit and to seek to discredit those to whom it is ascribed. Ascription is therefore potentially more significan than the condition itself, and we return to the enduring discrimination imposed by those mental institutions that were shut down for the very same attitudes people still carry.
The view that the mentally ill person is inferior and not capable of handling his own affairs ought to be carefully scrutinized, to account for inappropriate stigmatization.
The movie, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest brilliantly illustrates the arrogance of those who cling to their own grasp of reality as if it is the only legitimate version. A sharp indictment of the Establishment urge to conform and an earnest rejection regarding the socio-political appropriation of madness, when you watch it, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the inmates of the mental institution are essentially humane while those who confine them are oppressive and tyrannical.
The Myth of Mental Illness a book by psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Szasz parallels the sentiment of the movie. Szasz calls mental illness a double impersonization because the mental patients impersonate the sick role and the physicians who claim that they can treat the illness impersonate the play role of a medical therapist.
Like the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, one of the greatest movies ever made, the reality that Dr. Szasz portrays essentially confirms the obvious: Stigma dehumanizes and devalues a person's social identity and disqualifies the person from social acceptance.
This is why it is therefore necessary to completely eradicate the tendency to stigmatize. Societal reaction to mental illness and its symptoms defines an outcome of perpetual "illness" because it is not possible to escape stigmatization when it is attached to a condition whether it is real or imagined, and that is not appropriate.
Next: How to assess mental health.