“When stigma is present, any individual belonging to a particular category, such as schizophrenia, is assumed to possess all of th enegative stereotypes associated with that category and is therfore feared, disliked, or avoided. (Mueser, K. and Gingerich, S. 2006, p. 431)
Stigma can be caused by people’s exposure to biased information. For example, though the number of people with schizophrenia who are violent is quite low, only slightly higher than the general population, there is an idea among the general public that most people with schizophrenia are extremely violent. This is in large part due to the disproportionate amount of news coverage and media (movies, etc.) stories of people with schizophrenia who are violent. There seems to be a tendency for people to try to distance themselves from frightening experiences, like “He was a heavy smoker, that’s why he got lung cancer. I’m different, I don’t smoke, so that won’t happen to me.” In relation to schizophrenia, they might think, “She has schizophrenia, no wonder she freaked out and attacked four cops. I don’t have schizophrenia, so that would never happen to me.” People cling to this difference, despite the real fact that many more people without schizophrenia are violent against police than people with the disorder.
The effects of stigma are profound, ranging from people refusing to hire someone or rent an apartment to a person with mental illness to people just plain avoiding them out of misplaced fear. Neighbors fight against a proposal to open a group home or halfway house in their area, people call the police on peaceful, well-behaving strangers, and news reports frequently equate mental illness with crime. Schizophrenia has some of the worst stigma of all the mental illnesses. An additional issue is self-stigma, in which a person incorporates stigmatized beliefs that they then apply to themselves. Self-stigma can result in a person’s refusal “to acknowledge having schizophrenia because he feels that to accept the label would be tantamount to admitting he is crazy, worthless, or has nothing to contribute to society” (Mueser, K. and Gingerich, S. 2006, p. 432) or in feelings of hopelessness and grief and giving up on goals and resigning themselves to a lesser life than they could achieve.
The tragedies of stigma include the decrease in the quality of life of people with schizphrenia and the loss of some of the wonderful things people with schizophrenia can bring to the world. I personally have had clients who came in intially dejected, self-hating, and passive, thinking they were the lowest of the low and couldn’t’ do anything. Many of them have since started working, building friendships and hobbies, and bringing joy to their families with their kindness. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, the news and movies discard this type of story as one that won’t sell, one that’s not worth mentioning. However, I feel it’s the most important type of story worth mentioning regarding people with schizophrenia, as it gives them hope and gives the rest of us the knowledge that these people matter and bring a lot of good to the world.
In the next part of this series of blog posts, we’ll take a look at what you and your family and friends can do in the battle to fight stigma.
Mueser, K. and Gingerich, S. (2006). The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia