Today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day. MDABC has decided focus on stigma– something that several communities of people experience, including individuals who struggle with mental health.
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Stigma is defined as a mark of shame. Years ago, those living with mental illness were publicly shamed, persecuted, and punished. Today, society no longer outwardly condemns mental illness, but the sad reality is, people who live with mental health challenges still associate their illnesses with sentiments of shame, embarrassment, and guilt.
Today, misinformed social circles tend to mock the experience of mental illness. To compound matters, the media often demonizes mental illness, and eagerly reports news of violent crimes committed by people living with mental health challenges. What the media fails to report, however, is that comparably, those who live with mental illness are less likely to commit violent acts than the general population. In fact, those living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, than be violent offenders themselves.
People say stigma has changed, and that mental illness is no longer feared. But, society still recoils at the very mention of psychiatric wards, forensic hospitals, and streets beset with homelessness. The same underlying societal fears exist today, as they did years ago. Albeit, to a lesser degree.
Currently, there is little certainty around the causes of mental illness. The human brain is still a relatively unexplored frontier, and guesswork often mars the credibility of the field of psychiatry. Despite recent breakthroughs, modern medicine has yet to dispel the stigma associated with mental illness. We, as members of society, fear what we do not understand, and only when mental illness and addiction are better understood, will societal and cultural misinformation be overcome.
Stigma has been referred to as, a “social disease.” Like any disease, stigma can be spread. Cultural mediums, such as film, music, literature, and art, can all propagate stigma. Today’s horror films, for example, often revolve around the theme of mental illness, and frequently, these artforms are inaccurate, exaggerated for effect, and fictionalized.
But, the spread of stigma can also be prevented. Knowledge is powerful, and mental health education has the potential to eliminate stigma.
Mental health issues have gained a lot of attention in recent years. Nowadays, we frequently hear of celebrities coming out of the mental health closet, and revealing their histories of mental illness and addiction. As public figures become increasingly outspoken about mental illness, those of us with lived experience may feel more empowered to make our voices heard. Ultimately, what it will take to finally eliminate stigma are our collective voice, and our willingness to stand up to those who seek to brand us with a mark of shame.