Schizophrenia and Stigma

  • Two of the original Top 50 themes searched on at HealthCentral's schizophrenia community site were the questions posed as to whether stigma has gotten better over the years and are people with schizophrenia violent.  I wanted to tackle these twin evergreen topics again in light of the recent news.


    The root of stigma lies in the dictionary. 

    The Oxford American College Dictionary defines crazy thus: "Mentally deranged, esp. as manifested in a wild or aggressive way."

    Derange is "to cause someone to become insane."

    Unfortunately, the dictionary tells us insane is "in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill."

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    Define normal.

    Normal is living life with compassion towards others. Normal is the opposite of so much of what happens in our world.  Normal is stopping to ask someone what he's doing there instead of automatically shooting him with a gun.

    Normal is people with mental illnesses who are law-abiding citizens who hurt no one.


    Recovery is normal.  Choosing recovery opens doors for us that would otherwise be closed.

    I'll tell you what's not normal:

    These statistics from a Cornell Law School document:

    "Mentally ill individuals are fifteen times more likely to be assaulted, twenty-three times more likely to be raped, and one hundred forty times more likely to experience property theft than the general population."

    Worthington, Kathryn A.  (2009) 19 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 213                                                           


    Most likely, individuals with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of crime because they exist on government checks and have a low income so might live in bad neighborhoods where they're easy prey for attackers.

    We need a new definition of insane or it needs to be taken out of the dictionary as it exists now.


    A recent study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed a significant number of people still wouldn't want to work for or with or be in a romantic relationship with someone who had schizophrenia.

    The belief that medication helps people hasn't translated into a willingness by others to associate with those of us with SZ.  So for the most part, everyone keeps silent about his diagnosis.  This doesn't help create real change in public attitudes. 


    People with schizophrenia who do great things toil in anonymity without getting credit for their struggle to win the war against the symptoms.  People with this illness who have a much harder time of it and outwardly show signs of odd dress or speech or behavior face a double stigma.

    As I reported when the news first came out years ago, people diagnosed with schizophrenia are not statistically more violent then the members of the general public who commit crimes.  This figure rises to 28 percent when a person with SZ has a co-occurring substance abuse disorder, according to the research.


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    What's the solution?  It's doubtful that the stigma will go away in our lifetime.  We can hope for greater acceptance and I would submit that a significant number of people would also not think twice about embracing those of us with schizophrenia.

    My experience getting the word out about my memoir, Left of the Dial, illustrates this.  A guy wrote to me that he was surprised I had this illness and he wouldn't have ever guessed it.  The responses were universally positive from everyone who found out.


    I realize my experience with acceptance could be out of the ordinary.  Would I recommend that others disclose this diagnosis?  Not to employers, real estate agents showing you apartments, and anyone else who has the power to discriminate against you in a way that causes hardship. 

    A guy one of my friends knows told a real estate agent he collected a government disability check.  The agent told him no apartments were available for rent even though when my friend called on the phone a day later the guy says he could show her apartments.


    You might wonder why I speak out about my experiences.  You might wonder what's compelled me to enter my sixth year of working at HealthCentral to continue to bring you news about hot topics and articles in the mental health field.

    There's no glory in this kind of activism.  It doesn't earn you brownie points with anyone, nor does it get you praise by some of the very mental health organizations whose mission it is to promote recovery.


    I do this because it's the right thing to do.  I do this because spending upwards of $300 billion dollars each year in the U.S. on costs directly related to untreated mental illnesses is the truly insane thing.

    My take on whether or not to disclose has shifted since seeing the photo of Trayvon Martin in his red Hollister tee shirt with the white letters plastered on the Internet. A woman who wears a short skirt is not asking to be raped.  A guy wearing a hoodie is not asking to be killed.  His fashion choice might leave a lot to be desired in the scheme of making a style statement, and that's about it in my humble opinion.


    My contention is that disclosure of my schizophrenia is small potatoes compared to this.  I'm certain I'm not going to be killed for walking this earth.  So how could I not speak out?

    In the end, I recommend disclosure when you're able to because all of us must do our part to aid in healing society of the stigma. In whatever form the stigma occurs.


Published On: March 26, 2012