Guest Viewpoint by James McBride
Stigma, just what is a stigma? Webster defines it as something that detracts from the character or reputation of a person or a group: a mark of disgrace or reproach.
It is so easy to unknowingly perpetuate a stigma. What we say and do can have a lasting effect on people we least think about. The On Stage Drama Club, in all innocence, presented the Haunted Asylum for Halloween. Neither the drama students nor their faculty thought about the stigma that the mentally ill confront in America.
To their credit, the department chair was apologetic for any insensitivity it may have projected. I suggested they modify the event to the haunted house, but they and the administration did not think it was prudent because it had already been advertised.
Asylum is an old name for a mental health facility that treats various forms of mental illnesses. Mental illness is a brain disorder usually associated with a chemical imbalance that causes the mind to malfunction. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialized in the study and treatment of the most complex organ, the brain. They use medications and other methods in an effort to normalize the brain chemicals. Some believe mental illness is a result of a weak mind. It is a medically proven brain illness that affects all segments of society.
So why does such a stigma exist with the mentally ill? Most stigmas originate from a lack of available knowledge or the unwillingness of society to avail themselves of the information. In times past, there was a void of knowledge about the mentally ill.
Medical research was in its infancy and the medicines were rather ineffective, resulting in little help for the mentally impaired. If the medications worked, it left the patient lethargic and unable to function in society. So the federal and state government set up large asylums to house the mentally ill.
Those days are gone, but the stigma associated with that era lives on. Today there is somewhat more funding poured into mental health research. The asylums have been replaced with mental hospitals, general hospitals with psychiatric wings and outpatient facilities.
One of the most significant discoveries in treatment is that when the patient is accepted by his peers and has a support group, much like AA, they have a more rapid recovery and will stay in compliance with their meds. Third World countries that do not have the medical advancements that we have in America but have a close-knit community and family units, with no stigma on the mentally ill, have just about as good recovery rate. A stigma free, loving and accepting supportive society does wonders for recuperation and greatly reduces relapses.
There has been a tremendous effort to educate the public in this decade. Everyone from the surgeon general to the entertainment industry has shed light on the plight of the mentally ill. Russell Crow starred in “A Beautiful Mind,” depicting a schizophrenic who won the Nobel Prize. Everyone should see this award-winning movie.
There is so much information now available, yet the stigma lingers like a repeating nightmare. A prominent psychiatrist from the Southwest Medical Center made the statement that if society could get past the stigmas and set up more support groups, he would be put out of business.
Stigmas also are formed from tragic events like Houstonian Andrea Yates drowning her five children and the Virginia Tech shootings. These events seem to reaffirm our stigmas.
But the fact is that very few folks affected with a mental disorder are violent. You never hear of the thousands of people who have a mental disorder who are in compliance on their meds and functioning well in society.
When an individual begins to experience the onset of a serious mental illness, usually his inner circle of friends backs off. All too often his immediate family, not understanding how to help, will grow weary and kick the individual out of the house. There is little backup to the family unit because the state and county support services are underfunded and inadequate. Some of these folks end up on the streets and under the bridges.
In relation to other illnesses, the federal and state funding for mental health is dismal. As street people, the mentally ill are victimized by others and misunderstood by law enforcement. They bounce in and out of the criminal justice system. Just recently the county and city police departments are training officers how to handle the mentally ill. Judges and special courts are now being used to come up with alternative avenues instead of jail. Little wonder the stigma toward these folks is so pronounced.
So is it overreacting to be concerned about a drama club depicting a mental health facility trying to freak out its patrons?
I am confident they did not have anyone in attendance who has been admitted to a mental health facility in the past. If anything, this event would drive them more into the shadows, make them feel rejected and ridiculed, and less apt to seek the professional help they need. No one likes to be degraded, labeled or disgraced. We need to exercise acceptance to the mentally afflicted to the same degree we do with any other illness.
When I was a child, folks would not openly discuss the illness of cancer. It was a whispered subject. Thank the Lord, we are past that stigma.
Maybe, just maybe, by the time my grandchildren are grown, we will be past the stigmas of mental illness. I challenge you to take time to give thanks to your creator for your health and step beyond your stigmas.
Become more sensitive to those who struggle in areas that have not afflicted you. You will become a better humanitarian.
James McBride is the coordinator of photography at this college.