Giles Malieckal, Social Worker at The Fortune Society

Fortune Society Combats The Stigma Of Mental Illness That Limits Access To Treatment And Services

Monday, October 19, 2015

When looking at the numerous barriers that can pose obstacles for people with criminal backgrounds to obtain mental health treatment, of primary concern is the stigma those with a mental illness experience.

In addition to the well-known barriers — such as discrimination against people with a criminal background, lack of resources, and general disenfranchisement — a stigma can pose an equally intractable problem that limits access to needed services and to crucial support for people encountering a critical period of transition, such as reentry to the community following a period of  incarceration.

One specific source of stigma that can block access to treatment is culture. As a nation of immigrants, this country faces a unique challenge in this regard as people bring their own cultural beliefs about the perceived (and often false) realities of mental illness with them and often struggle to accept the potential negative impacts that an untreated mental health condition can cause for both individuals and their community.

Though this barrier may appear formidable, my experience working in this field has shown me that when people do confront these culture-bound fears and stereotypes about mental illness, often they are able to teach others in their community about the realities of living with a mental health condition, thereby reducing this level of stigma.

An additional area of concern which tends to further perpetuate this stigma can come from the message embedded in pop culture. I was struck by the recent M. Night Shyamalan movie, The Visit, which, while fictional, reinforces stereotypes of violence among the mental health community by portraying them as aggressive individuals. This only serves to further isolate people with a mental illness and to cause others to see them as people who should be feared and avoided whenever possible. While this plotline may have been convenient for the creators of the film, the damage it can cause for the mental health community was unfortunately disregarded.

Despite these challenges, it is with hope that we look to the work of strong national organizations such as the National Association for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) which plays a key role in confronting the scourge of stigma and advocating for the need to break down these stereotypes.

While NAMI’s work is important, we too can play a central role in this effort. When you observe this stigma at work in your community, I encourage you to question it, challenge it, and seek the real truth about what life is like for the one in five in this country who suffers from a mental illness.

If they are less fearful about how others will view them when they do seek treatment, their prognosis will be better and we will all be better off for it.


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