How to INCREASE stigma in mental health — fight stigma the conventional way
Mental illness is a biological disease like any other… Schizophrenia is just like diabetes!
It is the mantra of mainstream psychiatry.
And the typical justification presented for the continued repetition of this mantra (despite its being patently false, both from a subjective and objective point of view) is the theory that characterizing “mental illness” as a brain disease reduces stigma. The general public won’t blame afflicted individuals once they realize that it’s just a matter of faulty chemicals, a somewhat defective brain. They won’t fear the disease if they believe that lifelong, routine injections of a necessary but missing chemical (like an insulin shot!) will solve the problem.
Here’s an example of the mantra (and its accompanying justification) in action, from Glen Close’s highly publicized “Bring Change 2 Mind” campaign to decrease the stigma of mental illnesses:
LEARN THE FACTS
One of the best ways you can help someone with mental illness is by understanding what it is – and what it isn’t. After all, myths about mental illnesses contribute to stigma…
The fact is, a mental illness is a disorder of the brain – your body’s most important organ – and 1 in 6 adults lives with a brain-related illness including depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia… And just as with most diseases, mental illnesses are no one’s fault.
– from the “Bring Change 2 Mind” website*
This organization has a celebrity spokesperson and billboards (!)
… so they must know what they’re talking about, right?
LEARN THE ACTUAL FACTS
FACT 1: So-called mental illnesses (let’s call them “subjective experiences of mental and emotional distress”) CANNOT be reduced down to mere imbalances in brain chemicals.
First of all, there’s NO KNOWN WAY to measure the balance of chemicals in someone’s brain. No method of establishing what a so-called “normal” balance of chemicals would be. Even if there WERE a method for measuring this, there’d be no reason to assume that this would somehow be universal across people of disparate genetic, biological, cultural, emotional, environmental backgrounds – which mainstream psychiatry seems bent on doing.
Second, numerous (far too numerous to list here!) studies show that a variety of factors besides “biological” ones – ie, the introduction of new chemicals, in the form of pharmaceuticals, into someone’s body – have a profound effect on the resolution of mental and emotional distress. To list one simple example, outcomes for first-episode psychosis (typically leading to a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”) are very different in industrialized societies and non-industrialized societies, because the standard of care is different: industrialized societies emphasize medication as first-line and perhaps the only treatment, while non-industrialized societies emphasize social support and integration into the community combined with little or (more often) no medication. Here’s another great article that goes through a few more examples of how culturally specific mental and emotional distress (and our reactions to it!) can be.
FACT 2: The disease model explanation for so-called “mental illness” actually INCREASES STIGMA, while a psychosocial model explanation slightly DECREASES it.
That’s right, folks: the disease model, describing mental and emotional distress as mere chemical imbalances of the brain, is not only false – spreading that falsehood markedly increases stigma! So when mainstream psychiatry claims it may need to tell a “white lie” about all this for the patients’ own good (reduce stigma, get folks to take their meds, etc.) they’re wrong again.
In 1997, Sheila Mehta of Auburn University conducted a simple experiment to test the stigma produced by a disease-based explanation of so-called “mental illness” and a psychosocial one. 55 male college students were enrolled in an experiment. Each one was told that he and a partner would have to do a simple learning task – but the partner was actually a confederate in the study. The confederate would disclose a mental illness to the subject, and then explain either that he had this illness because of “the kind of things that happened to me when I was a kid” [psychosocial] or that he had “a disease just like any other, which affected my biochemistry” [biochemical].
It turned out the group presented with the biochemical explanation were far more likely to treat their partners harshly than the group presented with the psychosocial one. Says Mehta, “The results of the current study suggest that we may actually treat people more harshly when their problem is described in disease terms. We say we are being kind, but our actions suggest otherwise… Viewing those with mental disorders as diseased sets them apart and may lead to our perceiving them as physically distinct. Biochemical aberrations make them almost a different species.”
[Mehta, S. (1997). Is being “sick” really better? Effects of disease view of mental disorder on stigma. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 16(4), 405-419.]
Later studies (like this one involving over 450 people in New Zealand) have replicated Mehta’s results and agreed with her conclusion. What’s that mean?
It’s actually SCIENTIFICALLY SOUND
unlike the disease-based “biochemical imbalance of the brain” theory, which has still not been proven true, in part or in whole, despite over 40 years of extremely well-funded studies directed towards that very specific purpose.
We do not know the causes [of any mental illness]. We don’t have the methods of ‘curing’ these illnesses yet.
-Dr. Rex Cowdry, psychiatrist and director of National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1995
[While] there has been no shortage of alleged biochemical explanations for psychiatric conditions…not one has been proven. Quite the contrary. In every instance where such an imbalance was thought to have been found, it was later proven false.
-Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist
[today’s dose of sarcasm will be footnoted]
*A few other goodies from the “Bring Change 2 Mind” website
An image of Glen Close and her BIPOLAR sister.
See the difference – one person is NORMAL, and the other is BRAIN-DISEASED. It says it on their shirts! (Not stigmatizing at all…) And for the mere price of $20 a pop you, too, can wear an anti-stigma shirt with your diagnosis printed clearly across the front, labeling you.
Anyone? Anyone at all want to fight stigma by labeling and stigmatizing yourself?
I think this is a far better way to fight stigma — rip those labels up!