Madhouses, looney bins, insane asylums, monsters, witches, and lunatics. These are the terms that haunt both the mentally ill and the facilities that provide their treatment. The stigma of mental illness prevents persons in need of treatment from seeking help for their mental illnesses. The roots of the stigma of mental illness need to be dissected to reduce the discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping of the mentally ill. There are things that can be done to prevent this stigma including changes in federal policy, public cooperation, and individual advocacy.
1. HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Civilizations have tried to cure the mentally ill since prehistoric times. Often it was believed that these people were victims of possession by demons, or were witches. Doctors Eric Snitchler and Kevin Harris from Northern Illinois University noted that “Archeologists have uncovered skulls with holes drilled in them dating back as far as 8,000 B.C…the holes may have been drilled into the skull as a means of releasing ‘evil spirits’ that were trapped inside the head causing abnormal behavior.” This surgery, referred to as trephining, is still practiced by some African tribes today.
In the Middle Ages, Europeans left the mentally unstable alone unless they proved to be dangerous. In the 1600s Europeans began to isolate the mentally ill. They treated them poorly and chained them to walls and left them in dungeons. After the French Revolution, some establishments were reformed and patients were given more freedom and more pleasant living conditions; however, many people were still mistreated. In America, the mentally ill were locked up with criminals and hidden from the outside world.
By the late 1800s, many state psychiatric hospitals were created, and mental illness attained worthiness of scientific study. In 1930, treatment of the mentally ill became more advanced. Common treatments included drugs, electro-convulsive therapy, surgery, insulin-induced comas, and the lobotomy. It wasn’t until the late early 1960s that more humane treatments were developed such as behavioral therapy and outpatient care (“Treatments for Mental Illness”). Although psychiatric hospitals are better maintained, treatments are more effective, and doctors are better qualified today, there are still many disparities in mental health care and many mentally ill people remain undiagnosed and untreated.
The aforementioned treatments of mental illness influence both public and self-stigma of mental illness today. David Vogel, Nathaniel Wade, and Shawn Haake, from Iowa State University, define public stigma as “the perception held by a group or society that an individual is socially unacceptable and often leads to negative reactions toward them. The public stigma associated with seeking mental health services, therefore, is the perception that a person who seeks psychological treatment is undesirable or socially unacceptable” (325). Psychologist Marty Manosevitz attributes the stigma of...