Mental health advocates say the pain of stigma is as devastating to people with mental disorders as the symptoms of illness. For many centuries mental illness was terribly misunderstood. Individuals afflicted were viewed by society as dangerously demon-possessed, were locked up in prisons and even executed as witches. In our day it is still all too common for mental illness to be treated a joke. Consider how frequently we hear words that mock these serious brain disorders—”wacko”, “nut case”, “schizo”. This constant ridicule marginalizes young people struggling with mental illness and makes it very tough to engage them in treatment. Who wants to acknowledge having a mental health problem if it leads to being the target of name-calling? Adolescents in middle and high school often experience stigma as bullying. They are called “crazy” and “psycho” and are socially isolated and victimized. In a number of recent high profile cases, bullying has apparently led to teen suicides.
Knowing this grim history, I was pleased that NIMH director Dr. Tom Insel invited New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey to speak at a recent gathering of organizations supporting NIMH research. Meeting attendees applauded Ben Carey for his series in the NY Times. “Lives Restored” began running last summer with several stories appearing on the front page. The series profiled people who are functioning well in the community, despite struggling with serious mental illnesses. The stories underline advances in diagnosis, treatment and the research that has revolutionized our understanding of these disorders. More important, they humanize mental illnesses and make plain the strength and resilience of the individuals who shared their life stories. The audience was moved by videos of Ben Carey’s interviews with the people he profiled.
I hope we’re at an important turning point in reducing stigma. For nearly 20 years we’ve seen a steady effort to help people shake off their prejudices and understand that mental illnesses are no-fault brain disorders. Public figures and celebrities have led the way in disclosing their personal struggles. The list includes successful authors William Styron and J.K. Rowling, actors Owen Wilson and Johnny Depp, actresses Patty Duke and Brooke Shields, Washington women Tipper Gore and Barbara Bush, musicians Billy Joel and Eric Clapton, pro football players Terry Bradshaw and Earl Campbell, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and many more. Each time a notable person talks about having a psychiatric diagnosis it emboldens others and chips away at the myths that surround mental illness.
Now we’re learning about everyday people – friends, neighbors and co-workers who are living with mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and even psychosis. People we know and love are being diagnosed, treated and are recovering with our help and support. The media, which often demonized mentally ill people as crazy killers or homeless bums, now leads the way in shaping accurate portrayals. I know we have a lot more to do in the battle against stigma, but it’s inspiring to read Ben Carey’s stories of hope and recovery, especially when they focus on “ordinary heroes.”