We’ve all heard them -loony, insane and crazy – these are the labels sometimes given to people with a mental illness but how does it feel to be on the receiving end of such descriptions? People living with a mental illness and advocates share their personal experience of the stigma associated with mental illness.
PROFESSOR GORDON PARKER (Executive Director at The Black Dog Institute): Well I think, and this may seem provocative, but I think that it is human nature to stigmatize to some degree and I think the mechanism behind that is for us to draw back from anything we see as different. Now that could be a child born with a deformity or it could be an adolescent with a nose ring. It just not part us. And then that can move into a whole range of situations where we might stereotype people by their sexual orientation, their religious grouping and for other reasons, of course, including psychiatric illness. Now that may be instinctive, it doesn’t make it by definition right or wrong, but what I think happens in a civilised society is people have the capacity to override that innate tendency to withdraw when there’s something different or unusual.
JOHN KONRADS (Former Olympic swimmer): Well the stigma is a huge thing that is actually being overcome rather rapidly, but it’s still there. Being involved in the start up of Black Dog Institute at the same time Beyond Blue started up, where one of the primary objectives was de-stigmatisation. In other words get people not to treat us like loonies, people to pull their socks up or get locked away.
JOHN CAMPBELL (President State Council St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland): There’s a major stigma probably more in the bush than there is in the city with people with mental illness. People would be aware that somebody is not you know not travelling 100 per cent right, but because of the stigma a lot of people won’t go near them and that is a challenge.
PETER SCHAECKEN (Consumer consultant, Sydney South West Area, Mental Health Service, Eastern Zone): It’s only been since the 1950s that they’ve had psychiatric medications. Often, for example, people might be having hands shaking and that can be from medication. There are some long term side effects from medication such as Tardive dyskinesia, which is very serious and could involve the person’s tongue moving backwards and forwards or their limbs moving etc. And these are very disabling and very obvious and often the people feel very embarrassed about those conditions. People can dribble sometimes and that could be caused from medication etc. Sometimes if people have been on these medications for a long time with high doses it can be very difficult to change their medication at all and that may cause a rebound effect, in other words the person will have another episode if there’s any attempt to lower the dose. So consequently they’re bombed out on medication and it’s very hard to change things for them, but that doesn’t mean the person can’t recover. Even people with ongoing symptoms of mental illness are capable of recovering.
GREG HOGAN( Co-ordinator , Ozanam Institute of Spirituality): Whenever I run into someone who presents as being mentally ill, because you can never be sure unless someone actually tells you that they’re mentally ill, so there’s a lot of prejudice and stereotyping stuff that happens in my own head anyway, but if I meet someone in any of the work I do, who I think may be mentally ill, I basically treat them like anyone else because I’m convinced that more people are like me than different to me anyway. So I start with the presumption that this person has a life. He’s not his mental illness; he can’t be defined as his mental illness or her mental illness.
DR BOB SERICH (Chair, National Mental Health and Homelessness Advisory Committee): The labelling of lunatic.
PETER SCHAECKEN: Psycho.
DR SERICH: Madman.
LYNNE (Living with a mental illness): Crazy, insane.
DR SERICH: Raving.
PETER SCHAECKEN: Schizo.
DR SERICH: Fruit loop.
PETER SCHAECKEN: And schizophrenic. They upset me because I even hear health workers say schizophrenic, and I have to pull them into line.
LYNNE: Lynne the women with bipolar, rather than Lynne as a person, who sometimes happens to be mentally unwell.
GREG HOGAN: Once upon a time I think mental illness was much less known about and so people weren’t labelled as being mentally ill so therefore they escaped the stigma of the label.
LYNNE: We live in a society that constantly diagnoses people and labels people more and more every day.
GREG HOGAN: Part of the problem with labelling people as mentally ill, is that we…..with any label we put them all in the one boat. First of all, we may in our home visitation meet many people who are mentally ill or some people who are mentally ill that we will never know because they manage their mental illness. I think that when we’re talking about people who are mentally ill, we’re talking about people who are obviously in our face mentally ill so perhaps they’re not managing their illness well enough. Why don’t people manage their illness? Because they’ve missed out of the social supports that will encourage them to see a doctor, see a therapist; see someone who can help them manage it.
PETER SCHAECKEN: When I first got sick, when I first came back to Sydney after being in hospital for nine months, nearly everybody where I lived knew I’d had been in hospital, word had got out. And one of my friends said to me are you going to have another nut attack, that’s what he said to me, and that was unacceptable to me. I did not expect to be treated like that. Often the media has been very unkind to people with a mental illness, portraying people with a mental illness as axe murderers, psychopaths etc.
DR BOB SERICH: If we’re going to have a change in society’s attitude and education it’s got to start early. It’s got to start in primary school. It’s got to be carried through high school because there are many, many instances where children at high school are persecuted by their peer groups. This has an immense effect of somebody’s self esteem as their developing you know.
PETER SCHAECKEN: Sometimes what’s even really sad is when you hear a person with a mental illness say I’m a schizophrenic, I’ve got no friends, I’ve got no job, I’ve got no future, I’m a schizophrenic. It’s really sad to hear that. So the first thing, you know one of the things that needs to happen is somehow you work with the person to change the perception of themselves; so that first of all they’re a human being and that they like themselves. Even when you’ve got a mental illness you’ve got to learn to like yourself. How can you be motivated, achieve, have goals if you don’t like yourself? How can you have a go in life if you don’t like yourself? [It is] really important even if you’ve got a mental illness. Even if you might have two episodes a year, but you still need to like yourself. It’s very important.
PROFESSOR PARKER: I think empathy is at the heart of all this. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for somebody, but it’s a bit hierarchical, its assumes that person isn’t good enough or is not up to your standard. Empathy, I think is much more parities, an equal situation. Empathy is where you can actually put yourself in the position of the other and feel for them. And so, if we allow ourselves to begin the process of understanding what it’s like to be the other person. Whether it’s an adolescent with a nose ring, whether it’s a person with a deformity, whether it’s a person with a psychiatric illness then I think you’re a long way along the process of beating stigma. And so I think for mental illness, those people who have the capacity to sit down with someone with mental illness, listen to them as they tell their story and eventually put themselves in a position where they’re able to walk in their shoes. Then I think we override stigma. And we’re seeing evidence of it in regard to mental illness, but equally there’s a long way to go.