For years I struggled to deal with or talk about my diagnosis. The term “mental illness” was something I could not bring myself to say. And starting therapy seemed like admitting defeat to me. While I felt alone in those feelings at the time, I now recognize that millions of people across the country experience the negative impacts of societal stigma against mental illness.
That is why I was concerned as I read The Spokesman-Review editorial “Strengthen the grip on mental illness” (May 16). I can, of course, appreciate calls for greater funding and a shifting of priorities when it comes to our country’s mental health system, but the context in which we make those calls, and the language we use to do it, matters.
Most often, the need for greater funding or support of mental health services is discussed only within the context of violence and tragedy: mass shootings, escaped patients or lethal police encounters.
In the editorial, phrases such as “public safety deteriorates” and people “acting out” were used to describe the negative consequences of not adequately funding our mental health system. The incidents these terms reference certainly deserve serious discussion and action, but when the language used implies that undiagnosed or untreated people with mental illnesses are a threat to public safety or will act out in menacing or threatening ways, it reinforces the myth that mental illness and violence are intertwined. This only adds to the stigma so many people already face, and it obscures reality.
What is truly at risk with our inadequate mental health system is the well-being of people experiencing mental illness and their ability to live stable, healthy lives. And as is well known, those of us with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators: A 2001 study of people diagnosed with severe schizophrenia found that they have victimization rates that are 65 percent to 130 percent higher than those of the general public.
Similarly, a meta-analysis on severe mental illness and violence in 2008 found that “victimization is a greater public concern than perpetration.” While these statistics are well known to many people, what is less well known is research that shows that how we discuss mental health and mental illness matters.
In two studies, Patrick Corrigan and his colleagues devised experiments to see how people would react to different messages or narratives about mental illness. In the first study, they randomly assigned participants to three different educational programs, one of which made an association between mental illness and violence. Before taking part in the educational programs, stigma regarding mental illness was measured using a validated survey tool.
What they found is that participants in the educational program that linked mental illness and violence reported higher levels of fear about people with mental illnesses. Alarmingly, participants of the “mental illness and violence” group also expressed that they would be less likely to help a person who they know has a mental illness in comparison to the other two educational program participants.
In the second study, Corrigan and colleagues had participants read three news stories: One group read news stories about people with mental illnesses managing to recover; the other group read stories about the “dysfunctional mental health system.” As with the first study, they measured stigma via a survey tool before and after reading the stories. They found that stigma increased among participants who read stories about the dysfunctional mental health system but not among those who read stories about recovery.
These findings are consistent with several other studies that show how negative narratives and language often used by the media to discuss mental illness can perpetuate stigma. And make no mistake, research has consistently shown that stigma is significant contributor to underutilization of metal health services and poor treatment outcomes.
In short, the language we use right now contributes to the very dynamic we claim we want to reverse. If we truly want to help those struggling with mental illness, we must discuss the issue in a way that does not devalue or pigeonhole people with mental illnesses.
We deserve better.
Blaine Stum, of Spokane, is legislative aide to Councilman Breean Beggs.
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