Let's Not Reinforce Stigma

From The World Schizophrenia Fellowship Newsletter,
3rd Quarter, 1995

Every day in our lives we reinforce stigma. In our circle of friends, when someone forgets something, does something wrong, states an unacceptable opinion or even just misplaces an article, how do we respond? We respond with jokes which denigrate their behaviour: "They’ll be taking you to the funny farm soon", we say, laughing. And have we ever analyzed why we do this? Is it to cover embarrassment at something happening that is perceived as slightly out of the normal, correct behaviour? And why should our expectation be that everyone has to conform to some sort of "normal". When we laugh at our friends it is a way of making some sort of excuse for their action, a way of reducing their embarrassment at having said or done something unacceptable. What we should work on is accepting the imperfections that we all have, to a greater or lesser extent — encouraging acceptance and tolerance in all spheres of daily living.

It is no surprise that people who have a mental illness face the prospect of jokes and comments like those mentioned above, but these often have an edge to them which indicates ill will or insensitivity. The laughter can be derisive and difficult for a vulnerable person to handle.

It is small wonder that people with a schizophrenia tend to deny or try to ignore their diagnosis, given the fact that they are frequently verbally abused, derided or treated shabbily by society. This denial even extends to groups of people with mental illness who themselves deride professionals for treating mental illness as a medical condition. These people have bought-into being stigmatized rather than buying into rejection of shame and blame in favour of recognition of a real medical condition.

Recognition of the real medical condition that is schizophrenia, with real etiology and real symptoms, as in any other disorder, will begin to bring understanding and eventually compassion. But attitudes are hard to change and first of all we have to change our own. Let’s promote tolerance in our everyday life. Let’s be slow to anger, slow to criticize; eager to learn; slow to blame; eager to listen and ready to accept. DF