People should not be disadvantaged, mistreated, blamed or otherwise treated as less than fully human due to mental illness. When I say that there is stigma associated with mental illness, (“Ending stigma: High Country group bringing mental health awareness to churches,” Jan. 21, https://tinyurl.com/ujn78f8), I am not saying that this is the way things should be or that the “stigma” is rightly felt or imposed. Rather, I do so to expose stigma to the light of day, for if it remains unspoken, it remains unchallenged.
In its StigmaFree campaign, NAMI defines “stigma” this way: “Stigma is when someone, or even you yourself, views a person in a negative way just because they have a mental health condition. Some people describe stigma as a feeling of shame or judgment from someone else. Stigma can even come from an internal place, confusing feeling bad with being bad.” See https://nami.org/stigma.
I have seen stigma’s effects in my own family, such as when a family member refused to go to the local mental health center because of fear that someone in town might see him. I have seen it when a police officer, a participant in NAMI Georgia’s Crisis Intervention Training class visiting my former parish’s day program for people with mental health issues, asked, “Is it demons?” See http://www.holycomforter-atlanta.org/.
Whenever people treat mental illness as shameful or blameworthy, there is stigma. Whenever our public officials fail to provide adequate funding for mental health treatment and research, the root of this neglect is stigma. Whenever people are afraid to mention their own mental health struggles to family or friends or their pastor or employers, the occasion of this fear is stigma. Whenever our leaders’ first recourse in the face of epidemic gun violence is to mental illness, it is stigma that empowers this passing of the buck. When we casually use terms like “crazy,” “looney,” “nuts,” or “maniac,” stigma lies beneath such disregard for the human dignity of people affected by mental illness.
There shouldn’t be stigma. There’s nothing shameful or blameworthy about having mental health struggles. A significant portion of the population experiences such struggles, often silently and fearfully. Yet, a significant portion of the population, including many people affected by mental health issues, feel shame due to the illness or regard the illness of others as shameful or blameworthy. There are no rational grounds for this shaming or blaming, but the feeling and the blaming are real. So, I say stigma is real. It’s a lie, but it’s real, and it’s time to end it.
The Rev. Mike Tanner, president,
NAMI High Country