Demystifying and Destigmatizing Mental Illness

The day after the Sandy Hook massacre, a relative of mine made an off-hand remark that pushed all of this psych major’s buttons. “If they would just keep the crazy people locked up, terrible things like this would not happen,” she insisted. Mind you, this relative is reasonably educated and not prone to off-the-wall comments, so to me, this incident signified the pervasive public opinion on mental health issues.

How can we combat the stigma?

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who suffers from serious mental health issues who has not come up against stigma. Unfortunately, these days Adam Lanza has become the face of mental illness.

I wish we would engage in a well-informed, mediated national dialogue about these issues. Before entering the discussion, people need to check their prejudice. Check it at the door, with yo coat. Seriously, do it now! Keep doing it. Again. And again. (This process never really ends, does it?)

Sloppy, judgmental mental health talk would exacerbate the problems. First off, we should debunk the tenuous link between mental illness and homicide that the media has promoted. The mentally ill do not always lash out with violence. Oftentimes, they themselves are the victims of homicide.  Second, on the side of the “nurture” argument, we should also be careful where we are assigning blame. I have seen some fingers pointed at his mother. This sounds like a throw-back to the days of the “refrigerator mom,” when, prior to the diagnosis of autism, mothers were blamed for being cold, unfeeling, and thereby socially stunting their children.

Are we doing all we can as a society to make sure that people get the help that they need?
Sometimes I take a look at our frayed mental healthcare system and wonder how we could possibly meet the needs of the ~26.2 percent of Americans who struggle with mental illnesses each year (NIHM, 2012). There are so many barriers to psychiatric care. Lack of insurance coverage for non-drug treatments, such as talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.  The consequential over-reliance on prescription drugs. Shortage of psychiatrists in underserved areas. The grim reality that in this country, healthcare is not a service. It is a business, with insurance companies, hospitals, and community clinics all boiling down to profit-making enterprises.

The American healthcare system is based on a disease model. We are treating the symptoms, not preventing them from rearing their ugly heads in the first place. Perhaps we should switch gears and focus more on preventative care, giving children and adolescents access to the services they need before it is too late.

How does the Human Connectome and BAM fit into all of this?

My hope is that these new advances in neurotechnology will allow us to catch neuropathology at an earlier age and allow us to develop effective treatments. In addition to disease prevention, perhaps these findings will also help facilitate a cultural overhaul. Perhaps by showing others that autism, depression, schizophrenia, and other mental issues stem from connectopathies – neurological miswirings, not a lack of motivation, need to exercise more, sloppiness reading your Bible – we can destigmatize mental illness and sweep it out from under the rug. That way people will be able to come forward and ask for the help they need. Perhaps one day we can tune-up our brains the way we’d tune-up an incorrectly wired radio! I’m optimistic.

Dismounting from my soapbox,

(2012, May). The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved Feb 26, 2013 from

7 thoughts on “Demystifying and Destigmatizing Mental Illness

  1. We briefly discussed this stigma on one of the first days of class and I agree that it is a huge problem. Hopefully you are correct in that learning more about the connectome will lead to a more widespread understanding of these mental abnormalities and more effective treatment. I hope that one day there will be a culture wide understanding of mental illnesses as concrete medical problems, rather than personal issues. I’m in no way saying that this is the case with Adam Lanza but perhaps people who need would be more likely to seek it if the stigmas were not so established in our culture. I’m not sure if we would see a decrease in the number of terrible stories like the Sandy Hook shooting, but it is interesting to think about.


  2. Great points, Val! That’s exactly what I’m hoping for as well. I hope that if we are able to point out neurological abnormalities as the cause for someone’s behavior – if you can say that in adolescence, there is reconfiguration of neural connections that, in conjunction with disrupting some genetic pathways may exacerbate earlier inclinations towards psychopathology, then you can say “Wow, that person sounds really sick” instead of “Oh he has mommy issues.” We want to public to react like these are facts, not personal issues.


  3. I’m a big fan of a prevention model for mental health care. I find it absolutely crazy that there’s such a separation between the brain and body in our health care system. We do so much to prevent disease in the body including getting yearly check-ups, vaccines, and taking vitamins yet we do nothing to check-up on our brains! Even if we don’t have all the answers yet or a cure for every disorder, I think it’s still important to keep tabs on what’s going on up there from an early age and make treatment more readily available. I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with people since Sandy Hook concerning gun control and mental health, but one of the potential solutions that stuck with me was the idea of making mental health check-ups part of everyone’s yearly physical. That way, even though we can’t prevent disease from manifesting entirely, we can detect problem behaviors at an early age and intervene. I think it would help to take away some of the stigma as well since having a mental health evaluation yearly would become the norm. It won’t solve the issue completely, but I think it would be a step in the right direction.


  4. Awesome points! But what do we do about the uninsured? Or the millions of homeless people out there with serious psychiatric issues? Healthcare, both mental and physical, is a privilege that not everyone can afford and is highly regulated by interest groups that have $$$ on the mind. How should the government provide for its most underserved populations?


  5. I believe mental illness and the stigmas around it are a very important issue today. I think people jump to stereotypes and over-generalizations about mental illness simply because they do not understand it and need to come up with some sort of explanation for it. (I only have some understanding of it myself because I have family members who suffer from mental illness). I think a key to getting rid of the myths of mental illness could be early education. I think if people were educated in school from an early age about mental illness, just as they are about drugs or physical conditions, they might not come to such misconceptions. This could allow those suffering from mental illness to be open about their condition and get the treatment they need.


  6. I feel as though one of the biggest issues surrounding mental illness as that people don’t believe there is a way to get supposedly crazy people help without locking them up. In the incidence of Sandy Hook, the boy was receiving minimal treatment, and his mother had taken him to a shooting range believing that guns would be a good catharsis for the son. She was scared of him, and he was dangerous, yet she didn’t seem to know of many ways in which to curb or stop his deviant behavior. Ultimately, we need not only a better mental health care system, but a better means of informing the public about the care that already exists. Arvia is definitely right about the mental health stigma being an unfortunate and unnecessary one, and maybe once we can get rid of it, people will be more willing to communicate openly about these issues.


  7. Mental illness and the stigma surrounding it has obviously become a huge topic of discussion these past few months, and with good reason perhaps. Although not all mentally ill people use violence, the majority of mass violent acts are committed by mentally ill people. Instead of judging these people (who clearly need help), it would be much more productive to look at improving the institutions that are usually “responsible” for taking care of the mentally ill. State run mental hospitals do not provide the best medical care as their privately run counterparts ,which brings into this argument on mental health, the whole idea of social class inequalities in this nation. Ultimately, at the state and federal level, reforms need to be in mental hospitals to make them cleaner, and more effective so that we are providing adequate health care to all of those in need.


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