What is Stigma?
Stigma is a negative stereotype attributed to people with a mental illness which can be hurtful and dangerous. It can make it difficult for someone with schizophrenia to be accepted by others and can lead to discrimination. People with schizophrenia, through no fault of their own, find themselves denied housing, education, employment, income, criminal justice, parenting and other basic rights that most take for granted because of stigma that can lead to discrimination. No one should have to hide his or her illness.
Why Should You Be Concerned About Stigma?
Sometimes because of the stigma attached to schizophrenia people don't want to talk about the illness. For the person with schizophrenia, not talking about the disease can result in delays in diagnosis and treatment. There are many consequences:
- Self-medication, like using alcohol or drugs.
- Mental or physical health getting much worse.
- Frustration over unmet expectations at school or work.
- Trouble with the law.
- Social isolation or neglect.
- Trouble getting a job or finding a place to live.
Families are often reluctant to talk about schizophrenia because of past experiences. Families who don't talk about the illness:
- Often feel guilty or ashamed.
- Have the added burden of trying to 'cover up' the illness.
- Suffer alone in silence.
When mental illness is not addressed, society suffers from:
- Loss of productivity on the part of the ill person and their family members.
- Higher health care costs.
- Misinformation and ignorance.
How to Fight Stigma
Help your family member
- Treat them as a person you love and respect, not as someone who is sick. Focus on the person not the illness.
- Be a role model when it comes to accepting the illness.
- Attempt to help them keep life as normal as possible.
- Be supportive when they face difficulties in daily life.
- Understand that daily tasks may not be easy anymore.
- Help them see that not all problems are related to the illness.
- Find ways to deal with embarrassing/difficult situations so they do not feel ashamed or at fault.
- Join a local self-help, support or family education group.
- Learn all you can about the illness so you can share information and help dispel myths and misunderstandings.
The Impact of Everyday Language
The way we speak about mental illness affects the ideas people have about diseases like schizophrenia. Sometimes psychiatric terms are used in the wrong way, or in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes:
- Psychotic, psycho, schizo, crazy.
- Nut house, loony bin.
- Schizophrenic (it's better to say "a person with schizophrenia").
The word "schizophrenic" is sometimes used incorrectly in day-to-day conversation to mean someone who can't make up their mind or has conflicting views. This is an incorrect way to use the word. It suggests that schizophrenia means "split personality." It does not.
For people with schizophrenia and their families, these words hurt.
What are some of the Myths about Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a disease that many people don't understand. Because of this, people with schizophrenia and their family members have to deal with myths and misunderstandings about the illness. Some of the myths include the following:
- People with schizophrenia are violent.
- People with schizophrenia are lazy or irresponsible.
- Schizophrenia is a character flaw or moral weakness.
- Poor parenting causes schizophrenia.
- Treatment won't work.
- Schizophrenia means split or multiple personality.
How Media Contributes to the Myths
The way schizophrenia is portrayed in the media has helped contribute to these myths, especially that people with the illness are violent. Examples include:
- A newspaper report of a "schizophrenic" man who is described as violent and dangerous. The report may not include any information about the disease but it may paint the person as a criminal.
- Movies where characters with mental illnesses are killers or psychopaths. These seem to be more common than movies with realistic stories about people living with mental illness.
It's important to know the facts so that you can combat the myth that people with schizophrenia are violent:
- People with mental illness who are being treated are no more likely to be violent than other people.
- People with schizophrenia are much more likely to be violent toward themselves than toward others; up to 40% attempt suicide at some point.
- When people with schizophrenia do commit violent acts, it's usually because they are not getting proper treatment. People with severe mental illness who are not receiving treatment are six to seven times more likely to be physically violent than the general population.