EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a very technical, researched piece I wouldn’t normally publish here but its content is close to many of our hearts. Thank you as always for reading.
In an age of mental health awareness—even by our nation’s celebrities and respected public figures—there is one group of people still suffering the aftermath of mental health stigma. The schizophrenic people have been so heavily stigmatized for their brain disease that in some cases they won’t even seek treatment for fear of being discriminated against. Lack of treatment can lead to a plethora of issues, including suicide. Of the few (in comparison to the masses raising awareness about other mental illnesses) writing and speaking about this disease, most prefer to use the term ‘people with schizophrenia’ over ‘schizophrenic’ because people to do not want to be defined by the illness. Even Elyn Saks, a professor who has achieved fame with her memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, has been quoted many times with the words, “Please hear this: There are not schizophrenics. There are people with schizophrenia.” Other advocates and mental health professionals have warned me against the term ‘schizophrenic’, which is precisely the reason I believe this disease needs activism. The desire not to be defined by something that is so clearly part of us veils the real problem: we need to educate society about the disease we live with instead of making an attempt to distance ourselves from it. Schizophrenia is not a shameful thing and we should own it just as we would own anything else about ourselves that we are proud of.
Both Germaine Greer and Martin Luther King Jr. believed that equality was the key to the success of society and that it was societally unacceptable to not be passionate about freeing the oppressed. Though there is not nearly as much public awareness of schizophrenia as there are other mental illnesses, the schizophrenic people are suffering as a result of the stigma I will speak about and it is our duty as a society to recognize and support the cause of doing right by these people, just as much as it has been our duty to do the same for any other civil rights issue our world faces.
Society teaches us, as human beings—through corporate environment, social status, public view, body image, success and the avoidance of failure—that we must appear to be thriving in our lives, even if we aren’t. Germaine Greer, a representative of the feminist movement born in 1939, talks about the effect of the way boys are raised in her piece, Masculinity. “A man is supposed to be unflinching, hard in every sense. So he is taught to control his gestures, to keep his hands and arms still and his face expressionless. His body outline is to be contained and impermeable. Real men do not fuss or scurry. (896)” Though Greer’s intention is to make reference of how boys are raised to be masculine contributes to inequality of men and women in society, it is rather powerful in supporting the fear of the schizophrenic people—and ultimately, people affected by any other stigmatized mental illness—to speak out about their struggles with their brain. If such individuals were raised to never admit such a struggle by always appearing to be contained, how difficult would it be to admit if they knew they would be stigmatized as a result?
The fear of showing our true selves, which is considered abnormal in society, and what the result of that could be, can lead to a refusal of treatment. In a piece meant to assist families in encouraging their loved ones affected by schizophrenia to seek treatment, the author talks about stigma being a main factor. “It’s estimated that half of all people in the United States with mental illness don’t receive treatment. Part of the reason is that mental illness carries a stigma—and schizophrenia is no exception. Many people don’t truly understand the illness, and they may react with fear or discrimination.” 4 Reasons People with Schizophrenia Resist Treatment is very helpful in understanding the reality that this effect can have on the schizophrenic people. We fear the oppression and therefore suffer in silence.
Stigma and discrimination against the schizophrenic people is a reality that many of us face. In a study called “Stigma and Discrimination Towards People with Schizophrenia and their Family Members”, the author concludes what real people with this illness go through. “Psychiatric patients, and specifically those with schizophrenia, suffer from stigma and discrimination. Experiences of that kind can be found in many areas covering almost all aspects of daily life, including health and psychiatric care. Patients reveal many examples of those experiences and sometimes tend to isolate themselves, perhaps as a defensive reaction to avoid rejection in the social sphere. (22)” One man who was interviewed talks about the most powerful stigma of all: constantly being stigmatized as dangerous. “They accused the media of playing an important role in maintaining these prejudices, since they offer an unreal image of schizophrenics, attributing the more serious crimes to them. “The media…as soon as something happens…someone gets killed…it was a mentally disturbed person who had schizophrenia.” (E; male, 50). (18)”
While stigma may not seem like such a bad thing or something we can get past, its aftermath can get much worse when the oppressor transforms from the outside in. The schizophrenic people also suffer from self-stigma as a result of the victimization they face, which can have negative effects on their recovery. In a study called “Self-Stigma and Its Relationship with Victimization, Psychotic Symptoms and Self Esteem Among People with Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders”, an explanation is given about self-stigma: “…the direct effect of victimization on self-stigma also draws attention to external factors: not only do people feel they are different because of their clinical status, the fact that they are confronted with loss of material goods, conflict and violence more often, may also instigate and maintain these feelings. Victimization in this way contributes to a vulnerability of internalizing stigmatizing attitudes. (8)” 43.1% of the study’s participants had been victimized, more than half of which was related to robbery. The study concludes that “The current finding of a relationship between symptom severity and self-stigma is consistent with earlier research supporting the hypothesis that more psychotic symptoms may attract attention and be misunderstood as signs of danger or incompetence, thereby making one of the target of the stigmatization. (8)”
When society is accused of stigma, we rationalize it with the schizophrenic people being dangerous, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a mental health advocate with paranoid schizophrenia myself, I have experienced it. Watching the latest news report about a serial killer or mass murderer who has shot up a school or a movie theater; how quickly reporters with no experience in psychology jump to conclusions about how this person must be schizophrenic. Unfortunately for the schizophrenic people who suffer at the hands of stigma as a result of these outlandish claims, these assumptions have no facts or valid background to support them. In an article in Women’s Health magazine wherein I was featured for my advocacy, Carrie Arnold talks about this misconception: “While some gunmen do have mental issues the majority—three out of four—don’t; in fact, research shows that mental illness was a factor in fewer than 5 percent of all U.S. violent crimes or gun killings in the past decade. Instead, studies have found that people with mental health disorders are disproportionately more likely to be the victims.” These inaccurate claims are just as dangerous for the schizophrenic people as the acts they are most times wrongfully accused of committing.
Oppression of the schizophrenic people is a direct result of the various stigmas and discrimination we have to live with, as a study in South Ghana demonstrates: “Discrimination may lead to societal exclusion, bullying, aggression, ridicule and devaluation of the self-worth of people and these could bring about oppression against such persons in all areas of life including the ability to obtain housing, maintain regular employment, access education engage in meaningful relationships and enjoy quality of life (Baffoe, 2013).”
History tells us that as the oppressed, we must demand justice for fighting what is right. In King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in 1963 to defend his right to demand justice, he explains why he would not quit. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. (217)” The black American people did not claim to be anything other than they were as they fought for equal rights; instead they demanded that it be universally understood that even though they were black they had a right to be treated justly like white Americans had been. The schizophrenic people should not have to change the language to ‘people with schizophrenia’ to be treated justly; we should be treated justly simply because we are good people who contribute to society like our fellow Americans. How ridiculous would it be to think ‘American people with black skin’ has any more civil bearing than ‘black Americans’? People should be treated equally, regardless of the things they were born with, be it skin color or schizophrenia.
Should we ignore this problem of oppression and not work together to stand up for the rights of the schizophrenic people, we could die. There are several pieces that connect to such a threat like “Stigma as a cause of suicide”: “We read with great interest the article by Eagles et al (2003) in which, among the various interventions discussed to prevent suicide, it was suggested that according to patients’ opinions there should be a decrease in the stigma attached to psychiatric illness. (173-174)” Suicide as a result of stigmatizing the schizophrenic people could be much more impactful than we might realize according to Schizophrenia Facts and Statistics. “The prevalence rate for schizophrenia is approximately 1.1% of the population over the age of 18 (source: NIMH) or, in other words, at any one time as many as 51 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia.” That is roughly 500,000 schizophrenic people that could potentially be affected by suicide.
Discriminating against people born with a brain disease via damaging statements and acts is a civil rights issue as much as Hitler’s reign was and a solution for oppression is needed as much as it was when Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the rights of black Americans. This type of unjust behavior in our society cannot be accepted or embraced for a diverse world such as ours to thrive. The schizophrenic people deserve a productive and functional life just as much as any “normal” person in our society does and the way we demand justice is to speak about the unjust behavior against our people who need our support to survive. We do that by owning our illness in the public eye with the words yes, I am schizophrenic, and no, I am not a killer. We must show them that we are kind, intelligent contributors to society just like any other American man or woman, and as such, we deserve to be treated with respect.
A Bestselling Author, NPO VP, and Psychology Today Blogger from Burbank, California, Allie Burke writes books she can’t find in the bookstore. Having been recognized as writing a “kickass book that defies the genre it’s in”, Allie writes with a prose that has been labeled poetic and ethereal.
Her life is a beautiful disaster, flowered with the harrowing existence of inherited eccentricity, a murderous family history, a faithful literature addiction, and the intricate darkness of true love. These are the enchanting experiences that inspire Allie’s fairytales.
From some coffee shop in Los Angeles, she is working on her next novel.
Germaine Greer. Masculinity. A World of Ideas, Lee A. Jacobus, Eighth Edition, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010, 889-902.
“4 Reasons People With Schizophrenia Resist Treatment.” HealthGrades, April 19, 2016, http://healthguides.healthgrades.com/advances-in-schizophrenia/4-reasons-people-with-schizophrenia-resist-treatment.
González-Torres, Miguel Angel, et al. “Stigma And Discrimination Towards People With Schizophrenia And Their Family Members.” Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology 42.1 (2007): 14-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
Horsselenberg, Ellen M. A., et al. “Self-Stigma And Its Relationship With Victimization, Psychotic Symptoms And Self-Esteem Among People With Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders.” Plos ONE 11.10 (2016): 1-13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
Carrie Arnold. “Which of These Women Has a Mental Illness?” Women’s Health, May 24, 2016, 174-185.
Dako-Gyeke, Mavis, Asumang, Emmanuel Sowah, et al. “Stigmatization and Discrimination Experiences of Persons with Mental Illness: Insights from a Qualitative Study in Southern Ghana.” Social Work and Society International Journal (2013): Web.
Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. A World of Ideas, Lee A. Jacobus, Eighth Edition, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010, 211-231
Pompili, M., Mancinelli, R. Tatarelli, et al. “Stigma as a cause of suicide.” (2003) 173-174. The British Journal of Psychiatry. Web.
“Schizophrenia Facts and Staistics.” Schizophrenia.com, 2010, http://www.schizophrenia.com/szfacts.htm