Advancements in the clinical and psychological understanding of mental illnesses in recent history have vastly improved the perception and acceptance of people with mental illnesses by society. With this increased acceptance, outreach from both professional and public domains have increased access to medical treatment and support groups, for those in need. However, despite the progress that has been made thus far, there are still underlying stigmas that are attached to mental illness that arise from lack of knowledge surrounding the causes and burdens of these conditions. Destigmatizing mental illness requires professionals and the general public to toe a fine line. For some conditions, the stigma has deviated to glorification, a status which bears many of the same qualities of stigmatization. For instance, both stigma and glorification can inflame the attention given to an individual on the basis of their illness, which leads to belittling other aspects of their being. Through proper education, everyone can learn to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness without any damaging glorification. Before looking further into the process of stigmatization and glorifying mental illness, we will first look at the history.
The term ‘mental illness’ refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that are associated with altered neurochemistry that result in atypical mood, thinking, and behavior. Mental illnesses can begin at any age. They can develop from genetic or environmental factors. The types of treatments available may vary from person to person depending on the type of mental illness. Treatments include medication, which doesn’t cure mental illnesses but can help alleviate symptoms. Mental illness in most cases, tend to work best with medication and psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. Where medication and psychotherapy fail there is brain-stimulation therapy, most common being electroshock therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation. Also, there are hospital and residential treatment programs as well as various outpatient supports. Understanding the risk and benefits are important when choosing proper treatment.
The stigma surrounding mental illness is not a recent phenomenon. Allison M. Foerschner describes in The History of Mental Illness: From “Skull Drills” to “Happy Pills”, “In ancient Mesopotamia, priest-doctors treated the mentally ill with magico-religious rituals as mental pathology. Exorcisms, incantations, prayer, atonement and other various mythical rituals were used to drive out the evil spirit.” (1). In other ancient civilizations mental illness was more often attributed to something supernatural, demonic possession, or displeasing a God.
The first recorded evidence of science based de-stigmatization of mental illness comes from approximately 400 BC. Ingrid Farreras mentions in History of mental illness. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology that “Greek physicians rejected supernatural explanations of mental disorders. Hippocrates attempted to separate superstition and religion from medicine” (Farreras). Hippocrates, and later, Galen, introduced the concept of the four essential fluids or the four humours; blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile. Stating that an imbalance in these fluids could cause instability in the brain and body. “Galen (AD 130-201)...opened the door for psychogenic explanations; for mental illness being psychological stress as a potential cause of the abnormality. His theories however, were ignored for centuries” (Farreras).
By “...the late Middle Ages, between the 11th and 15th centuries, supernatural theories of mental disorders ruled Europe, fueled by plagues and famines believed to be brought on by the devil” (Farreras). Not only were the flames of fear fanned by natural disasters, but also because of the rise of the Roman Catholic church. Religion helped to reinforce the fear of mental illness back into the population. By thinking the mental illness sufferers were once again, possessed by demons, or has displeased God.
One well-intentional solution to the problem of the overwhelming number of people suffering from mental illness was the creation of mental institutions and asylums. Most of these establishments were run by churches and staffed by personnel who were unqualified to help the mentally ill. These people were also tasked with helping, criminals, the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed. The construction of these mental institutions was a step forward, as it was at least an attempt to help. On the other hand, these institutions generated fear in the general population, with people believing that the patients inside were dangerous.
Bethlem Royal Hospital or “Bedlam” in London, England is quite infamous for its mistreatment of the patients that resided there. Bedlam could quite possibly be the oldest institution for the mentally ill on record. Founded in 1247, it was opened as a sanctuary to help treat patients with mental illnesses. By 1330, the institution started to be referred to as a hospital; it wasn’t until 1377 it got the reputation for an asylum for the “clinically insane”. Treatments administered at Bedlam to the mentally ill appear now to be more sinister than helpful. Bedlman: The Horrors of London’s Most Notorious Insane Asylum mentions that “patients were routinely beaten, starved, and dunked in ice bathes. Also being victim to bloodletting, rotational therapy spinning 100 times per minute,” (Steven Casale). As horrific as these treatments were, the doctors or professionals did believe that they were helping. Perhaps the most arguably dehumanizing event that took place in Bedlam was the opening of their doors to the public. It became known as the “human zoo” (Casale). Bethlem Royal Hospital, while inhumane in nature, did not stand alone. There were many other asylums similar to Bethlam, all with their own horror stories.
Luckily, reform of these institutions was bound to happen, one of the most significant by Philippe Pinel in Paris in 1792. Pinel believed that mentally ill patients would improve “when treated with kindness and consideration” (Foerschner, 3). It didn’t take long for these reforms to spread from Europe to America. Patients were allowed to move about more freely, given sunnier rooms, and the abuse of the patients subsided. Giving it more moral management. Moral management is the process of, “focusing on the individual’s spiritual and moral development to lessen their ailments” (Foerschner, 3). Unfortunately, as successful as moral management was, it failed countless times in the 1800s. Reasons why were varied, the obvious due to ethnic prejudice with rising immigrants, and tension between staff and patients. Thankfully it started to take hold again during the 1900s, paving the way for the proper reform of mental institutions.
As the asylums were improving, medical treatments for the mentally ill were advancing. The advancements that took place at that time may not seem like advancements to us. Electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, insulin-coma therapy, and lobotomy, were some of the common treatments. However, the biggest advancement was the introduction of medication for mental illness. Medication for mental illnesses was introduced in the early 1950s.
Bringing us to modern day, all these advancements and stepping stones throughout the history of mental illness, some things still need improvement, like the stigma of mental illnesses for example. In the article, Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People with Mental Illness, Corrigan and Watson outline the two types of stigmatizing; public and self. “Public stigma is the reaction that the general population has to mental illness. Self-stigma is the prejudice which people with mental illness turn against themselves” (Corrigan, 16). Trying to decipher which is worse is a paradox. When looking into public stigma, which comes from fear, lack of understanding, or having preconceived notions of mental illness. As for self-stigma, “research suggests it stems from fear of rejections by others,” (Corrigan, 16). Having these self-stigma fears makes it hard for people with mental illness to accomplish personal or professional goals.
Stigmatizing views about mental illness are not limited to uninformed members of the general public. Even professionals can have some stereotypes about mental illness. In Stigma Against Mental Illness, Indian J. Psychiat comments that “the strongest prejudice against mental illness is the fear of violence; the vast majority of mentally ill persons have never committed a crime”, (Psychiat, 188). These prejudices make it difficult for people struggling or suffering from mental illnesses to seek help. According to Mental Health America, 1 in 5 adults have a mental health condition, that’s over 40 million Americans. 56% of those suffering from mental illness did not receive treatment. A large contributing factor to this could be from the lack of mental health professionals. There is only about one professional per 1,000 mental health patients. Another reason for the lack of available help is that a lot of health insurance providers don’t offer very good, or any, coverage for mental health.
Perhaps people would think differently, or even understand mental illnesses better, if illnesses like depression, for example, were treated more like physical illnesses. “Most physical ailments like a fracture, heart disease, or cancer, for example, causes a feeling of sympathy” (Psychiat, 187). When looking at reactions to mental illnesses it can be seen as something strange, unknown, and potentially dangerous. This should not be a reaction to people who are suffering from any ailment; be it physical or mental.
Thankfully, many people and organizations have been attempting to put a stop to the stigmas of mental illness. They are doing this by trying to make more and more people aware and trying to encourage those with mental illnesses that they don’t need to be afraid of seeking help. While trying to destigmatize mental illness, we have started to glorify it.
The process of glorification of mental illness can be seen in cinema and television. Mental illness can be used as an option for comedy, but it comes off more that people are laughing at the characters rather than with them. In Mental Illness and Ways of Diminishing It, Peter Byrne calls this “the them-and-us strategy”. This is creating a thought in people that mental illness is comparable to a joke. For example “someone forgot their meds this morning.” or when people have mood swings “stop being so bipolar.”. These jokes are damaging and make it harder for those suffering from them to seek help or be taken seriously when they reach out.
Of all the mental illnesses we will look at four in particular, what they are, and how glorification has happened. Eating disorders, anxiety, depression and self-harm. Each one of these mental disorders has a personal connection to myself or others in my life. A lot of the glorification I will be talking about is what I have witnessed through my own struggles or the struggles of those around me.
One of the biggest examples of the media’s impact on mental health is the standards of beauty in today’s society. Not just on television, but online on blogs, in magazines, books, artworks, even on billboards there are plastered versions of “ideal beauty” everywhere you look. What has been deemed as beautiful and interesting, is unreachable to most. This perception of beauty is causing eating disorders, for example, to become over-glorified. Looking at the iconic model Kate Moss, who has been on the cover of more than 300 magazines. Her most famous and controversial quote is “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”. This statement is glorifying eating disorders, which has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness.
Eating disorders have a lot of stigma attached to them. Having personally battled through an eating disorder, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, I believe it’s time to put these stigmas to rest. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t discriminate on gender either. To most, it is presumed that this is a disorder that is exclusive to women, however, of both anorexia and bulimia, 10% are male. The two most common eating disorders Anorexia Nervosa affects 1 out of 100 people. Bulimia Nervosa affects 4 out of 100 people. Some people may also not know that there are two types of bulimia; purging and nonpurging. Purging is what most know as binge eating then forcing the body to throw up. Nonpurging on the other hand, is binge eating, but instead of throwing up the person suffering will force themselves to work out in excess, abuse laxatives, and fast. 50% of those suffering from anorexia also suffer from bulimia. Eating disorders are not some quick and easy way to lose weight. They are not something that should be sought after, nor a conscious decision to have them. They are an ugly disease that slowly kill their victims.
The process of the glorification of eating disorders happened through the media and internet. There are those who have been creating, ‘thinspiration’, ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’ blogs, which post about encouraging others to starve themselves and even show off their accomplishments on their ‘journey’. These blogs try to say that eating disorders are beautiful. Living in the culture today, excessive workouts and fasting are the new fads. Under the pressure of being thin, it isn’t hard to fall into the trap of eating disorders.
The second mental illness is anxiety. Anxiety affects about 40 million Americans. Most of the time anxiety is seen as shyness, or over-worrying. There is a lot more to generalized anxiety disorder. There are a lot of physical symptoms the general public may not be aware of. Most may be aware that people with anxiety can experience shakiness, shortness of breath, sweating, and chills. There are also other lesser known symptoms such as chest and stomach pains, choking sensations, light-headedness, and the feeling of pins and needles. These sensations that people feel from anxiety are real.
The process in which anxiety became glorified can be seen again in media. TV shows and movies portrays anxiety as general shyness. Characters with anxiety are usually the bookworms who are to shy to speak to others. So to gain attention, or wanting to become that shy person, people will lie about having anxiety. Little do the people trying to emulate this disorder do not understand how actually hard the struggle with anxiety is.
Next, there is self-harm. Inflicting harm to themselves, action should be taken to get them help. Self-harm can be cutting, burning, and hair pulling. To those who inflict harm on themselves, they are not trying to bring attention to themselves. They are not proud of what they do. For some, it starts off as an impulse, but can quickly lead to an addiction. Self-harm can be seen by sufferers as a way to regain control, release tension, experience euphoria, or to self-punish.
The glorification of self-harm can be seen on internet blogs, most frequently on Tumblr. Pictures of people showing off fresh cuts or burns are easy to find. These images can easily trigger someone with an addiction to self-harm. Self-harm also has become an easy target for jokes. Joking about this illness or any for that matter, makes getting help harder.
The last of the disorders I will address is depression. There are many different kinds of depression, each with their own different symptoms. Depression affects 15 million people in the United States alone. Like the others mentioned it is a debilitating mental illness. Depression symptoms can include, but are not limited to, sadness, loss of interest, guilt, hopelessness, and fatigue. It also can affect sleep, eating behaviors, and induce thoughts of suicide. To most, depression just sounds like sadness, it may be synonymous, but they are not of the same thing. Like with anxiety, some believe that it is not a real mental disorder, or that it is all in the victim's head. Depression in the media looks a lot like anxiety when it comes to depression being glorified, a shy or misunderstood individual is often pictured.
With these four mental disorders, a common theme emerges. The media looks to be a problem. Media is a powerful platform that if used correctly in regards to mental illness. It could work to properly educate society on what a mental illness really is. Social media and internet blogs could be used as a proper tool. Luckily, Facebook, Pintrest, Twitter and Tumblr are now starting to crackdown on people posting pro-disorder pages. This process of the media changing is one large step in trying to break the stigma surrounding mental illness, without glorifying the issue.
The best way we can challenge the stigma of mental illnesses is to talk to each other and to properly educate people. By breaking through the stigma, sufferers of mental illnesses will have an easier time bringing themselves to finding help and support. Help is always around the corner, support groups are reachable, and to those suffering you are not alone. National Suicide Prevention Helpline 1-800-273-8255.