Why do so many people judge mental illness negatively? Elizabeth Ita

Someone asked this question on Quora. Here are some answers people gave.

Alex Coninx said…

  • Because they are scared. That’s clearly the first reason. All social interaction (from cooperation to manipulation, negotiation or intimidation) is based on the fact that you can, up to a point, expect/anticipate your fellow human’s reactions and behaviour. People with a mental condition are perceived as “wild cards” because they react in a non-standard way in some cases and are therefore scary.
    I am diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which I (as many other people) would not describe as a “mental illness”, but is a condition that makes my behaviour and reactions different from most other people in ways that are difficult to describe precisely. A few months ago, I came to the conclusion that to other people, I was probably a bit like the monsters in books and fairy tales. Not all monsters are evil, but all of them are scary, and what is scary is not what they do but what you don’t know they will do. It seems that interacting with someone whose reactions are always a bit “off” puts people ill at ease and make them nervous because things don’t work “normally”. It is only partly relevant to the issues of (conscious) acceptance and (often unconscious) prejudice to people who are different; it is more like some deep social communication problem. Bridging that gap is difficult, even with good will on both ends.
  • Because of social judgements. In some circles, it is extremely important to follow social norms and codes of conducts, and all those who don’t are badly judged, with no consideration of whether they are deliberately rejecting those norms or just can’t follow them because of a mental condition. The general reasonment is “Not following the social norms is bad. People with a mental condition don’t follow the social norms. Therefore, people with a mental condition are bad.”
    Society is slowly changing and many people now have a more positive discourse on people with mental conditions, but peer pressure is a mighty force and many people won’t want to be perceived as having anything to do with mental health because of the bad social vibes it sends, even if they sort of care on an individual level.
  • Because it does not show. If you are a sexist, a racist or an ageist, you can quite efficiently hide it by avoiding people from the opposite gender, other ethnical groups, or younger than yourself. On the other hand, nothing will immediately tell you if someone is bipolar, autistic or schizoid. Prejudiced people will be shocked and can react especially violently when they suddenly realize that, horror, they are speaking to someone who is “not normal”
  • Because mental health is scary too. Mental illness makes people think of straitjackets, padded cells, electroshocks, psycho doctors, disturbingly smiling nurses, people tied to tables and injected with mind-numbing medications, etc. Even if those specific iconic examples are mostly Hollywood psychiatry now, psychiatric “care” is still absolutely dreadful in many places and that’s common knowledge. If you have ever visited a relative of friend in a mental hospital, unless that person was really lucky you probably already know how depressing they can be; otherwise you can check other Quora answers for the horror stories that routinely happen in some mental health services in “developed” countries. Even when you don’t have such connotations, many people are still afraid of psychiatrists and psychologists, thinking they will read their mind or whatever nonsense.
  • Because many, many people are not so well but are deeply scared of admitting it. Many people will think and claim that they are perfectly fine and healthy people while doing things like routinely dosing on anxiolytics, hitting their spouse or children, hurting themselves, engaging in addictive behaviours or feeling deeply unsatisfacted with their work, relationship, social circle, etc. Seeing people who consider themselves or are considered mentally ill make them think about their own issues, and that’s the last thing they want.
  • Because, as Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” People with mental conditions can be many things, but one thing they are is human beings for whom society has no right place. Every person in a mental hospital is a failure for social integration. Furthermore, what constitutes a “mental illness” depends on the society (wanting to have sex with people your own gender was considered a mental illness in many western countries until the 70s). People with mental conditions question the limits and problems of society itself in a way somewhat analogue to some artists. This is deeply disturbing to the conservative mindset.

An anonymous contributor said,

Mental illness often manifests itself in ways that are very difficult to separate from the individual’s personality.  For example, depression can cause people to be negative (“I can’t stand being around Jane, she’s just so negative!”) , anxiety can cause people to be emotional and nervous (“Don’t drive with Linda, she freaks out every time you tap the brakes, such a back seat driver!”) and those are just the minor mental health conditions (although depression and anxiety can be terribly consuming in their own right).  When you read about or work with more severe mental illness, you are dealing with people who, as part of their diagnosis, can express some of the following traits: narcissism, aggression, self harm, dishonesty, addiction, thievery, paranoia, anger, delusions, manipulative intent, fits of rage and the list goes on and on.  Many times, when we settle of the fact that we don’t like people, we often don’t think about the fact that the things about them we don’t like are born of mental illness.
Pile onto that the fact that most people with mental health issues are slapped with several other labels: “He’s violent and awful!” “She’s always crying” “He can’t keep himself together!” “She calls into work all the time.” “He gained 300 lbs, how lazy!” On and on….  That line drawn in the sand between personality flaw and mental illness is quite difficult for most people to decipher and treat systematically different.

Amy Farley says,

Many people with serious mental illness are challenged doubly. On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness. As a result of both, people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people.

Although research has gone far to understand the impact of the disease, it has only recently begun to explain stigma in mental illness. Much work yet needs to be done to fully understand the breadth and scope of prejudice against people with mental illness.

Society in general has stereotyped views about mental illness and how it affects people. Many people believe that people with mental ill health are violent and dangerous, when in fact they are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than harming other people.

Stigma and discrimination can also worsen someone’s mental health problems, and delay or impede their getting help and treatment, and their recovery. Social isolation, poor housing, unemployment and poverty are all linked to mental ill health. So stigma and discrimination can trap people in a cycle of illness.

The situation is also exacerbated by the media. Media reports often link mental illness with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as dangerous, criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives.

Carl Illingworth said,

The people that judge mental illness either have never experienced any illness themselves and therefore don’t understand it, making them fearful or judgemental towards it. Or they are themselves suffering with severe illnesses that are preventing them from realising what illnesses they are suffering with and assuming everyone else is broken.

We live in a society that has unrealistic expectations of us. We expect perfection and flawlessness because we’re brainwashed by the pressure of these expectations to the point where we try to hide our own flaws, as well as point out any imperfections in others. We have become too egotistical and narrow minded. Anything that doesn’t fit our idea of perfection is criticised instead of embraced or encouraged.

Nobody is perfect and it is these imperfections that make us human. We have become so false that we can’t accept imperfections in others because we believe we should all fit the societal dictation of perfection; which is just making us fearful of showing authenticity.

Jessica Ma said,

I believe it’s partly because people who have learned to manage or overcome it — and have been successful in other areas of their life — either don’t talk about it or are embarrassed by it. So most people who don’t have it only hear about the people who struggle with it and the negative side effects of those mental illnesses. This, in turn, makes those who have mental health issues feel like they have to hide it so that they’re not judged or discriminated against.

We need to recognize that mental health is only a part of who we are. We treat it like any other ailments we have and find ways to cope with what we can’t entirely fix. It may require much more self-care — and self-love — than we currently give ourselves. And once we learn to manage it, we should celebrate it as another successful milestone in our lives.

To make sure I follow the advice I gave above: I was diagnosed with OCD in 2011 and it wreaked havoc on my life for years before I learned to manage it. Somewhere along the way, I also learned to believe in myself and wasn’t ashamed to admit that I had a mental health issue. My goal is to help others where I can. For reference, here’s how I learned to cope over the years: Jessica Ma’s answer to How do you cope with anxiety?

What’s your opinion on this issue?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *