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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/16/11

There's No Stigma to Mental Illness

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Stigma is dead.

Stigma was eradicated years and years ago in many people who suffer from no-fault biological diseases. For example, stigma used to exist in men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer. It also existed in people with no illness at all: gays, lesbians, the left handed, and other historically marginalized populations.

But over time all these groups found a cure. They simply decided there was no stigma to having cancer, being gay, lesbian, or lefty. It was not a 'mark of shame' or "token of disgrace'.

They killed stigma and recognized what they were really suffering from was prejudice and discrimination.

While eliminating 'stigma' was relatively easy, since it only required a change in their own thinking, the battle to eliminate prejudice and discrimination was much harder and still on-going because it requires changing others. But importantly, eliminating prejudice and discrimination couldn't be done without first recognizing that the "stigma" that was preventing everyone from speaking out didn't even exist. Stigma was killed and everyone moved on to focusing on the real enemy: prejudice and discrimination.

Mental illness advocates should do the same. Declare stigma dead and move on to focusing on what really exists:  prejudice and discrimination against the mentally ill.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, it should be celebrated as "Stigma is Dead Month". Next year it should be converted to "End Discrimination Against Mentally Ill Month"

Activities should not focus on "expanding awareness of mental illness". As I wrote in one of the articles I am most proud of, current mental illness awareness activities are not only ineffective, they are harmful. Almost all of them are designed to work by hiding the most seriously ill, and parading around the highest functioning and least-symptomatic in an effort to convince the public that this somehow reflects the reality of untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It has the exact opposite of increasing awareness of the horrors of the illness. It's like trying to raise funds for hunger by only showing the well-fed.

Instead of focusing on non-existent stigma, we should focus on eliminating the public policies that discriminate against the mentally ill and are causing so many to become homeless, incarcerated, or take their own lives.

There are a host of those: a two-tier health system that shunts people with mental illness to substandard medical care; laws that prevent people with mental illness (unlike those with Alzheimer's) to become dangerous before they can be treated, Medicaid policies that refuse to reimburse the mentally ill in hospitals; and policies that send the most seriously mentally ill to the end of the line for mental health services rather than the front.

Stigma is dead. Discrimination and prejudice really exist.

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DJ Jaffe is a long-time advocate for people with very serious mental illness. He has written for NY Times, WSJ, Wash Post and others. He blogs on mental illness on Huffington Post
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