The Invisible Asylum: The Stigma of Mental Illness

by Cody Kaneshiro

Though one out of every four adults in America are diagnosed with a psychological disorder per year according to the National Institute for Mental Health, negative misconceptions about mental illness continue to plague the general public. Hollywood blockbusters, from the Joker in The Dark Knight to Dr. Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, continue to portray mentally ill characters as antagonists: violent, unpredictable, and brutal. News outlets, moreover, have focused their coverage of recent violent shootings on the role mental illness has effected perpetrators such as Adam Lanza’s hallucinations in the Sandy Hook massacre and the auditory delusions of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two Boston Marathon Bombers. Even the frequent use of words such as “madman,” and “psychopath” characterize psychological disorders as negative, socially intolerable afflictions.

More disturbingly, discrimination against individuals with mental illness is still quite prevalent in the fields. In the 1992 book, Stigma and Mental Illness, authors William Dubin and Paul Jay Fink found that lifetime insurance reimbursement coverage for psychological services was capped at $50,000, compared to the nearly limitless coverage for cardiac surgery or renal dialysis patients. Additionally, further studies by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors found that patients within the public healthcare system with major forms of psychological illness died 25 years earlier than those without mental disease, with 60 percent dying from preventable conditions.

“The majority of healthcare providers are aware and empathetic of people suffering from severe mental illness,” said Dr. Janice Schafrik, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. “Unfortunately, there are still a small handful of providers that you may run across once or twice that still harbor negative misconceptions about mental illness.”

Though the stigmatization of psychological disorders represents a huge problem on its own, the more immediate concern regarding mental health is how the lack of education about psychological disease in the public can create stereotypes and assumptions that lead to self-stigmatization: a process in which an individual applies social conventions onto themselves, resulting in a lack of self-esteem, lack of hope, and general apathy.

“The biggest challenge facing mental illness is the internalized stigma,” said Dr. Schafrik. “Students pick up what they see in the media and internalize it. But being able to recognize and analyze what has happened can be really, really scary in this battle. Over time they need to understand ‘that’s not true’ and recognize it for what it is and move forward.”

Joshua S., a student at USC struggling with depression, agrees that self-stigma can sometimes be the greatest obstacle in treating mental illness. “The stigma can be really difficult. Everyone has already been conditioned to have certain perceptions about what mental illness is and how ‘crazy; people act. It’s something that takes a long time for a lot of people to get over and start to be true with themselves.”

In particular, one of the hardest things for students struggling with psychological disorders is identifying that a problem exists and having an internal resolution to doing something about it. In a society filled with negative stereotypes against anything to do with mental illnesses, such internal battles often happen behind closed doors, without the help of peers, family, or friends.

Thankfully, Joshua notes, the stigma against mental illness is as significant as it is elsewhere.

“The general American society has created a lot of negative connections between mental illness and negative practices. It’s really time we try to move past these though so we can help the people that need to be helped. It’s like having asthma or acid reflux; mental illness doesn’t make you something you don’t want to be, it’s just something you have to deal with and move on.”

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