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How Generalizing Mental Illnesses Leads to Stigma

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The other day I was talking to a member of my organization, the Awareness Network. As usual, the conversation turned to mental illness stigma. The question is, “Why is the stigma around mental illness so much stronger than around most physical illnesses?” This is just a guess, but maybe it’s because unlike physical illnesses, all mental illnesses are thrown into a basket together and painted with a  broad brush. To some, they are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Think about it. Someone with diabetes isn’t described as a “physically ill person” the same way someone with depression is described as being “mentally ill.” Physical illnesses vary in symptoms, causes and severity and are treated as such. The same cannot be said about mental illnesses. “Mentally ill” people suffer from “mental illness.” What does that even mean?

The truth is that there are over 200 classified mental illnesses. When we group them all together, no one is the better for it. Lack of knowledge and understanding is what leads to stigma. How can we expect someone to understand anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. when they’re all grouped together as being the same thing?

There are plenty of months, weeks, and days dedicated to the awareness of specific kinds of physical illnesses ranging from Sepsis Awareness Month to National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month? There are almost none dedicated to specific mental illnesses and there are less than 10 focusing on “mental illness awareness.”

Not all people with mental illness are the same and they should not be treated or cared for in the same ways. Someone with cancer is treated differently than someone with kidney stones, because people know the difference. People are educated. The same cannot be said for most mental illnesses and that, I think, is part of what leads to stigma.

Those of us who advocate for people with mental illnesses or live with a mental illness need to speak out and we need to be specific. When talking about an illness, we should name it and explain it. Simply saying “mentally ill” won’t educate or benefit anyone. Hearing the words “depression,” “anxiety,” “bipolar” and “schizophrenia” should evoke different understandings. Just as someone knows and understands the difference between a broken arm and the flu, people should know the difference between OCD and panic disorder. That understanding begins with real, honest, and specific conversations. It’s beyond important — it’s essential to ending stigma.

Originally published: February 17, 2016
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