Why is there so much stigma associated with mental illness?
Stigma and physical illness
First, we should recognise that there is stigma related to health in general. Historically, the stigma arose from a lack of knowledge and understanding: for instance, fever might be attributed to evil possession or spirits. Science has taught us that illness is a natural response to injury.
Nevertheless, in more recent times, conditions such as cancer and HIV continue to carry stigma, due now to societal moral judgements: cervical cancer may be erroneously seen as an indicator of promiscuity.
Stigma is therefore a social issue, and to bring about change at this level takes times – decades if not centuries – through education and understanding.
Stigma and mental illness
In the 21st century, stigma related to mental illness remains rife, despite campaigns to increase our knowledge and understanding. One problem is that, by their very nature, the symptoms of mental illnesses contribute to stigma at a personal level, we feel ashamed, guilty. This personal stigma in turn contributes to people not accepting their condition and non-compliance with therapeutic interventions, be they medications, therapeutic or social.
Overcoming the stigma
One way of understanding this sense of stigma is to look at symptoms of mental illnesses as inflammatory responses of the mind to a real threat or a perceived threat, just as fever, pain, swelling and loss of function are natural defensive responses of the body. Only then can we truly overcome the personal and societal stigma that lead to empowerment.