The damaging effects of mental illness are not limited to those who carry the diagnoses. Their family members suffer too, according to a new study. The World Health Organization (WHO) spearheaded a global study, comprising participants from 28 countries, that researched the degree to which family members feel embarrassed when a close relative is ill.
They compared the level of embarrassment between family members of people with general medical conditions and family members of people with mental health conditions, and drug or alcohol addiction.
The researchers gave participants questionnaires about family embarrassment. Virtually across the board, regardless of location, age or gender, family members of people with mental illness, drug addiction or alcoholism expressed a stronger sense of embarrassment than family members of the generally ill about the condition of their relative.
The WHO attributes the widespread feelings of shame to stigma against the mentally ill. The Mayo Clinic defines stigma as the experience of being judged based on a personal trait. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with mental health diagnoses commonly face stigma. Stigma has harmful effects, such as discrimination at school or work, difficulty finding housing, bullying, and lack of understanding by friends and family.
Even worse, a 2013 study by British researchers found that stigma prevents people with mental illness from receiving needed treatment. The researchers, led by C. Henderson, found that globally, more than 70% of people with mental illness do not receive treatment. They attribute that statistic to several factors, including prejudice against the mentally ill, and the expectation by the mentally ill that they will experience discrimination.
Changing Minds is Challenging
According to a 2010 joint study by Columbia University and Indiana University researchers, the sense of prejudice toward those with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems is difficult to change. The researchers sought to find out if public campaigns to adjust perceptions about mental illness had been successful. Unfortunately, they found that the educational campaigns had hardly made a dent in the public conscience.
This study, which the National Institute of Mental Health funded, examined people’s attitudes at the beginning and end of a ten-year period. During that time, many groups attempted to explain the genetic and medical sources of mental illness. The awareness campaigns tried to equate mental illness with physical illness. While Americans did accept the biological basis of mental illness theory, the study showed that they did not adjust their outlook toward the mentally ill. They continued to carry stigmas, despite their new-found understanding.
End the Stigma
The WHO suggests several tactics to end discrimination against the mentally ill. One is increasing awareness, so that the general public will not equate mental illness with violence. Another is replacing psychiatric institutions with community mental health clinics, so that the general public will recognize that for many people, mental illness is simply an aspect of everyday life.
On a personal level, the Mayo Clinic has several recommendations about dealing with stigma. It suggests that people with mental illness should speak out against stigma, on the Internet, at events, and in letters to the editor. People who have experienced the effects of mental illness are well qualified to educate the public and to bolster others who have been newly diagnosed.
Your Opinion Counts
The Mayo Clinic also reminds people not to over-identify with their illnesses. Saying, “I’m schizophrenic,” instead of, “I am a person with schizophrenia,” only serves to increase the chances of enduring personal prejudice. Recognizing oneself as a person with many facets, including mental illness, helps others to mirror that view.
Lastly, it is important not to allow the stigma to generate self-doubt and shame. Having a mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness, and it is not something that you can control. By educating themselves about their conditions, people with mental illness can improve self-esteem and ignore the opinions of those who stigmatize them – even their own family members.