Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination about people with psychiatric disabilities have played a major role in limiting opportunities for community inclusion, and have caused enormous social and personal damage. On the one hand, people experiencing psychiatric symptoms may be unwilling to seek treatment because they do not want to be stereotyped and/or discriminated against because they are identified as someone with a mental illness; on the other hand, those already labeled as people with a mental illness may be discriminated against when they seek jobs, homes, friends, and even some of the most fundamental rights of citizenship. The Temple University Collaborative works to identify the most prevalent social misconceptions and advocate for both public education and policy changes that open the doors of opportunity to consumers.
There are a variety of myths about mental illnesses that feed negative stereotyping and open prejudice, but the two most prevalent and persistent are: a) that people with psychiatric disabilities are violent; and b) that people with psychiatric disabilities never recover and cannot lead normal lives. Both are false:
- two generations of statistics demonstrate that people with mental illnesses are no more violent that the general public, and that the best predictor of violence – for anyone – is a history of violent behavior in the past, and that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses do not represent a danger to themselves or to others; and
- the recovery and community inclusion movements have demonstrated again and again that people who may have experienced acute periods of psychiatric disability often either completely recover and go on with their lives or learn to live with and accommodate their symptoms so that they can play a variety of roles – worker, student, spouse, civic activist – that are important to them.
Nonetheless, these stereotypes and prejudices – and others like them – remain pervasive, and lead to all types of discriminatory behaviors – in public policies and personal interactions – that make community inclusion more difficult. Indeed, public opinion has changed very little in the last 50 years. In the 1950s, for instance, a study found that the average person preferred to have considerable ‘social distance’ from those with mental illnesses, and during the next two decades these negative responses continued. By the mid- 1990s, twice as many people associated the diagnosis of a mental illness with ‘antisocial behavior’ than did so in the 1950s, and one study found that while people were less willing to outright reject those with mental illnesses, overall attitudes remained quite hard – 65% of respondents indicated there was still ‘a lot’ of prejudice attached to a mental illness diagnosis, and neighborhood resistance to residential facilities for those with mental illnesses has remained strong.
Countering The Myths
There are a number of ways that consumers and providers can counter these stereotypes and prejudices. First, a wide array of educational materials are available (see SAMHSA’s website for the ADS Center) to help individuals and organizations learn more about mental illnesses. Second, a wide range of research studies say that one of the most effective ways to counter the myths about mental illnesses is to find activities that put people in touch with one another: efforts to help people with psychiatric disabilities to work, to participate in civic activities, to remain in touch with their families, to go to local schools and colleges – all these provide opportunities for other citizens to learn more about the individuals around them and slowly abandon their prejudices.
Third, however, more assertive public policies that forbid discrimination – like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – can be effective in assuring that opportunities are open to all. Both professional groups and consumer groups – working separately or together – can actively work to insure that stereotypes are abandoned, prejudices are countered, and discrimination is not tolerated.
Stereotyping, Prejudice and Discrimination.
While much of the work in this field used to fall under the label of ‘fighting stigma,’ some advocates have said that we would do better to focus on fighting stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination.
- Stereotype was a term originally defined by the well-known author and journalist Walter Lippman as ‘pictures in our heads’ about social groups – about people from other racial or ethnic groups, about women, or about those with schizophrenia). The term has come to means the beliefs – positive or negative – that we have about a particular group and their attributes. We have a long way to go to help the everyday citizen abandon some of the stereotypes – still fed by the media and by backyard conversations – about their neighbors and family members with mental illnesses.
- Prejudice is commonly understood as the negative impact of those stereotypes (e.g. “I just don’t like people with mental illnesses): although it is unclear whether irrational fear, lack of understanding, or some deeper form of bias is the source of these prejudices, people do often change their attitudes, and both professionals and consumers can play an important role in hastening the end of those prejudicial feelings.
- Discrimination, however, is a negative behavior – refusing to rent a room, or offer a job, or accept an invitation to lunch, or refuse to admit someone to a recreational center or a voting booth – because of those stereotypes and prejudices. Public policy can help to challenge discrimination, but individuals – consumers and family members and provider staff – all have a role to play.