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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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The Persistent Stigma of Mental Illness

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 2nd 2006

All of the surveys and statistics show that approximately one out of every six people will suffer some form of mental illness at least once during their lives. These illnesses range from depression to anxiety disorders, panic attacks, schizophrenias and the bipolar disorders. The numbers are probably a lot higher but it is fairly certain that many people never seek help for their emotional problems or fail to answer surveys in a ways that are honest and forthcoming. Herein is part of the problem: too many people continue to place a stigma on mental problems.

It is shocking that many individuals continue to refuse medications for depression, anxiety and other problems because they fear what will happen if other people learn of this. Specifically, they fear that friends and family will judge them to be crazy, irrational or too weak to solve their problems. There are even people who refuse to file insurance claims for psychotherapy because they fear their employers will fire them. People who are dating fear their boy or girl friend will reject them if they find out they are taking Prozac or some other anti depressant. There are even cases where individual will refuse to enter psychotherapy either because they fear being stigmatized by others or because they stigmatize themselves for experiencing emotional difficulties.

What is unpleasant about this is that these fears about being stigmatized are not unfounded. I have heard even educated people express the view that depression represents weakness. What I find hypocritical about some of these individuals is that while they criticize those who take psychiatric medications, they themselves find no fault with the fact that they consume bottles of beer on a daily basis.

In addition, while filing medical claims is supposed to be totally private, the simple fact is that, as a result of filing claims for any medical condition, places the private life and illnesses of the individual patient in the computer files of the insurance company. Can anyone guarantee that this information will not be used against a person sometime in the future? Many years ago a candidate for vice president of the United States was rejected by the media and the public for having been treated for depression. His competence was called into question because he once had a mood disorder. Should Winston Churchill have not been the leader of the United Kingdom during World War Two because he happened to have a bipolar disorder?

The fact is that mental illness is just like any physical disorder. In this case the organ that is affected is the brain. With medication and psychotherapy people find relief from their emotional problems. This relief is made possible by the fact that the chemical imbalances in the brain that contribute to mental illness are restored. The individual is able to continue their daily life without interference from their moods. In fact, they are then better able to handle the stressors that plague all of us from time to time.

It is time we came out of the dark ages with regard to mental problems and admit that every one of us is capable of and probably will experience some type of emotional disorder sometime during the course of our lives.

What do you believe? Your comments are invited. Please tell us what you think and, if you wish, what your experiences have been.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

cause and effect - Jenifer L. Johansen - Oct 20th 2014

well some say that medicines such as prozac cause further ailments in your mental health, and also the long terside affects is the need for permanent use.II would like to know if it is true that depression can cause drug addiction

shame - Peter - Sep 23rd 2009

there is so much shame involved when one has been diagnosed.  You can no longer support your family as you once did.  People think every thought and or emotion is a manifestation of your disease.  You are placed on social security and told you can only make 980 dollars per month.  If it was your career you took pride in, it is gone.  You lose credibility with your children.  People treat you like an infant.  there are many side affects to being diagnosed that just make things worse.  I think most of the people who are mentally ill are not sick they are different.  If one does not fit in the current socieconomic state of things then they are deemed incompetent.  If one cannot come to grips with society as it is good or bad then they are not mentally ill they are different. It is like the high school mentality that is you are not wealthy and well adjusted then there must be something terribly wrong with you.  The high school mentality pervades all the way to the end of a person's life and that is what is really sick.  When the one gang out number's the other gang the smaller gang is either absorbed or desimated.  Not always the case though because only one percent of the population has p.h.d.'s yet when someone with a p.h.d. speaks we all MUST listen or be austrocized.  I do not have a phd and yes I am mentally ill so you can dismiss the preceeding rantings of a madman.

I have doubts that mental illness is really illness as such - anon - Mar 10th 2007

I have an estranged father who was diagnosed as bi-polar. I've had several friends in similar circumstances & known others diagnosed as mentally ill. The one thing I find they have in common is their extreme selfishness and a total unwillingness to think there is anything wrong with how they behave or treat others.
I'm always blown away by the narcissim of these people - they are utterly clueless of others. The one I know wears his mental illness tag like a badge of honour and is obsessed with all things bipolar. There's no genuine interest in anything outside of his own little world. He likes to be a victim, and called ill since that removes any responisibility he has to work on himself - his personality, his attitude, his behaviour and his thinking habits. I find the mentally ill people I've known like that lack of responsibility, they like that they are ill and therefore don't have to put any effort into personal development or learn to control themselves or earn a living.
There's buddhist philosophers who posit that self-centredness is the cause of mental illness. From what I've witnessed, I agree.

Editor's Note: There are types of mental illness, notably the personality disorders and milder forms of anxiety and unipolar depression, that are more "software" problems than "hardware" problems, but then there are types of mental illness that are every bit as physically based (if more subtlely so) as your basic medical illness. On that basis alone, you have overgeneralized what may be a very valid point concerning your father onto a larger population of people who do not deserve your disapproval.

other article links - - Mar 2nd 2007
I'm planning to do some research on this topic with a McNair Grant. Can you give me some other article links or specfic directions you think I should take with this topic?

Mental Illness is soul destroying - annie - Dec 20th 2006
My mother has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Well, that's what it was, but after a recent visit to a run down, underfunded psychiatric hospital -where you're lucky if you see a psychiatrist for 10 minutes, they changed her diagnosis to paranoid schizophrenia. I think they are wrong, it's obvious to me that she has a mood disorder. They have her on medication that has not yet been proven to help people with bipolar symtoms. Her medication is doing nothing for her and she wont see the mental health people and they say they can't do anything until she does something crazy. Her family are absolutly no help whatsoever. I turn to them for help and advice and they tell me she does it deliberatly. They tell me she's manipulative. They seem to think it's behavioural, like she has a personality disorder. Sometimes the mental health team give me that impression because of the fact they wont intervene until she is climbing the walls, going stark raving mad. Why do things have to get so bad before help comes? And when help comes, all that happens is; she is sectioned, whisked away to a silly place, pumped full of medication and then let home again for the whole scenario to repeat. Her family think she brings it on herself and that makes it even harder to deal with because it means she doesn't have an excuse for her behaviour. People either feel sorry for me or think I should 'walk away'. They see me as having an 'abusive' mother instead of a mother who is 'ill'. Her behaviour definitly is abusive towards me, but she has an illness. I am fed up with it though. I am fed up with her illness and the way it impacts my life. She has never been a mother and is totally self centred. But, once again, she has an illness- so that's suppossed to make it all OK. It doesn't. Mental illness doesn't just destroy the life of the person who has it. It destroys the people who try to help and they have to walk away to survive. Stigma is everywhere and the worst thing about it is when people don't believe the person is ill. They just think they're playing at it, being manipulative, whatever. The worst thing about that is when you start to believe it.

ESCAPING - David - Oct 29th 2006
We need not seek to live fully, creatively & in goodwill. It is enough to cease ESCAPING to cease building barriers of desire & fear, of memory & time, all verbal, all MIND – MADE & all UNREAL. To be aware that we abstract from the reality of things & people & “take the word for the thing” is our first task. In so doing we come to grips with the first aspect of primary conditioning – abstracting from the ACTUAL & the CONCRETE, living in a shadow world of SYMBOLS, MEMORIES, & CONCEPTS which is an unreal world & therefore destructive.

The stigma of mental illness angers me - Nena - Oct 29th 2006
I get extremely angry at people who make nasty comments about those with mental illnesses. If you ask me, I think they're plagued with mental problems and know it and therefore are projecting their garbage onto others! ;) When I point this out to the ignoramouses, they sure do throw quite the temper tantrum. Then I say "What's the matter? You can't control your temper? Sounds like you need anger management therapy!"

stigmatism in families - - Jun 3rd 2006
I deal with stigmatism in my own family. When telling my brother for the first, actually we never discussed it again, time he began to chuckle and say "Oh boy". I was giving him detailed information and asked if he would like to write it down but he said "No thanks". I suggested a book, but he showed no interest. This is a college educated, succesful, high income, upper class man. Age 59. I recieved no sympathy or concern. My husband has taken over all responsibilities for seeing that the bills are paid since my diagnosis. Something I have always done in our 23 year marriage. He often times teases me about my mental health, but he thinks he isn't being harmful or disrespectful because he sees it as just being humorous about it. The only person in my family that did not change their perspective about me was my teenage daughter. She has been supportive and understanding. My husband is lovng and devoted, but clueless about mental health issues and has no desire to read up on it. He has been to a lecture during one of my stays in a hospital, but apparently doesn't rememeber anything. The first time I ever went into therapy I had to turn in the claim to some one in the office that I worked in and I was fired with in three weeks with the excuse that I was under productive. All this said, I consider myself to have a good life, but it angers and frustrates me that we are still dealing with this stigmatism. I sometimes wish all those who look down upon us would have a sudden panic attack.

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