President Obama Is Right: Stigma Has to Go

Last week, the White House hosted the National Conference on Mental Health, an event that served as real encouragement to many mental-health professionals and people directly affected by mental illness. We need to direct national attention and resources to caring for mental health more effectively and with greater compassion. The purpose of the conference was, as President Obama put it, “not to start a conversation. So many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard. Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”

I wish this conference would have featured people from churches and other faith communities, adding to the conversation and learning more about how we can help. I hope that in the future, when such an event takes place, the church will be front and center because so many of us will be doing effective and sacrificial ministry to people with mental illness–loving and life-changing care that will be impossible to overlook.

In his remarks, the president referred to the terrible and unjustifiable sense of shame and stigma associated with mental illness: “We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment. We’ve got to get rid of that stigma. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help. We need to see it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm or came down with the flu.”

He’s right. And it’s up to all of us to recognize and refuse to reinforce stigma in our own language, attitudes, and treatment toward people with mental illnesses. Sometimes that means fighting our own sense of shame when we or members of our families are personally affected.

In Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, I spent a whole chapter discussing stigma. Here’s an excerpt that introduces the topic of stigma within our culture.

Throughout history, mental illness has met with confusion, misunderstanding, and mistreatment. Even horror, persecution, and torture. We have made progress in fits and starts, and people with mental illness have never had more hope for productive life than they have now. But despite the progress, we live in a society that is still deeply confused about mental illness.

Have you ever paid attention to the way people with mental illness are portrayed in popular media? While some, especially more recent, works treat mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, most of popular media treats the mentally ill as either frightening or funny or both. Most people don’t seem to give it a second thought, but for people with loved ones who suffer from ongoing serious mental illness, such portrayals are hard to ignore. Try watching movies like Psycho, Strange Brew, Crazy People, The Shining, Misery, and Fatal Attraction through the eyes of someone who struggles with mental illness. Or turn on the TV this week and watch with a new perspective. On any given evening, you should be able to find at least one show that either reinforces terror of the mentally ill or makes light of their illness for a cheap laugh. News media often mention undefined “history of mental health treatment” in sensational crime stories. Even amusement parks use mental illness to entertain and terrify, with rides like “Psycho Mouse,” “Psycho House,” “Psycho Drome,” “Dr. D. Mented’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane,” “The Edge of Madness: Still Crazy,” and “Psycho Path.”

The Chicago-area Robert Morris University dance team was criticized for a performance in which they dressed in straitjackets, teased their hair, and surrounded their eyes with heavy black makeup. In a Vs. magazine photo spread meant to evoke impressions of a psychiatric hospital stay, actress Eva Mendes posed next to the headline “We Are All Crazy for Eva.” Burger King received national media attention (and stopped running the commercial) for its TV commercial depicting an “insane” version of their king mascot, running from men in white coats and being restrained. A California donut shop, Psycho Donuts, removed their “Massive Head Trauma” donut from their menu after complaints that veterans returning from war would be offended by the donut decorated to look like a man with jelly oozing out of the side of his head. But the shop still features staff in hospital uniforms and a “Psycho Padded Cell” where customers can have their picture taken. Examples abound in popular culture–and they keep on coming.

In everyday conversation, we stigmatize mental illness by casually calling people “crazy” and “psycho.” The mentally ill are widely believed to be more violent than the general population, even though studies have shown that this is not true. As with the general population, substance abuse does increase tendencies toward violence, but mental illness itself does not make people significantly more prone to violence than the rest of us. In fact, according to the U. S. Surgeon General’s office, “there is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder–the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.”

Such misinformation, as well as entertainment that pokes fun at people with mental illness–and in some cases encourages laughter at the idea of their mistreatment–accomplishes three things. It further marginalizes and dehumanizes people with mental illness by treating them as caricatures; it’s easy to laugh if we forget that we’re laughing at real people suffering from real illnesses. It encourages persecution and mistreatment. And it discourages people from seeking help for mental illness. In an environment that vacillates between mockery and horror, who wants to be the one to raise a hand and say, “Yeah, that’s me. I need to go to the doctor to get my medication adjusted.”

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, in her book Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, addressed stigma: “The worst thing about mental illness, besides the pain, is this very stigma. The taking pleasure from others’ pain. The jokes. Stigma creates a fear on the part of the mentally ill and cycles the fear of those who are healthy against those who are ill. I was so ill that at times I couldn’t move and yet didn’t want to tell my boss why I couldn’t come in to work. I had supervisors and colleagues, then, whom I never told. I realize now that I should have done so, but at the time I didn’t trust them with the news that I had a mental illness–one that would plague me for life. How could I go back to work after revealing that news?…One friend, a professor of theology, actually said about another friend who had been through electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), “His career is finished.” Obviously I never told her about my own problems.”

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office called stigma “the most formidable obstacle to future progress in the arena of mental illness and health.” When people avoid seeking treatment for mental illness, they may unnecessarily suffer debilitation. And society pays the price: estimated at more than 100 billion dollars a year in the U.S. This despite the highly effective treatments available today, some with up to 90-percent effectiveness. As NAMI says, “Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.”

Serious mental illness has mythological status in our culture. No wonder so many people in the church–just like those outside the church–have no idea how to relate to a real person who acknowledges or displays a mental illness.

This general societal misunderstanding of mental illness affects all of us. In fact, in some ways the stigma within the church may be stronger–with additional layers–than it is outside.


Most of this post was excerpted from Chapter 7 of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. If you want to read more about how mental illness is stigmatized in the church and how we can all help, you can find the book here.


Taken from Troubled Minds by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2013 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.