Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness

A new British study — with results that may mimic American trends to a significant degree, if past, similar research if any indication — found mental illness to be a stronger taboo than any of the other qualities studied, including homosexuality, bankruptcy, and alcoholism (in itself a mental illness, but considered as a separate condition by this survey and in much of the popular culture).

The survey of 2,000 people was commissioned by the charity coalition “Time to Change” in collaboration with the British Institute of Psychiatry. Just under one third of respondents reported they would find it difficult to admit publicly to being mentally ill. About one fifth said they would have trouble admitting to being gay, a difference of about 190 people, or 10 percent.

Strikingly, the study found that just under 33% of participants don’t believe a person with a mental health problem can “do a responsible job, ” and less than four of ten employers would be willing to hire a mentally ill individual. One fifth of female respondents also said they would end a romantic relationship with a man diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The Time to Change campaign, began last year, funded by lottery proceeds and a Comic Relief tour. Its goal is to reduce discrimination based on mental health by at least 5% by the year 2012.

© Copyright 2009 by Daniel Brezenoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • John

    February 27th, 2009 at 12:49 AM

    I am a little perplexed by this article. As an employer I dont know how I would be able to keep a man of questionable behaviour. Some people who have schizophrenia are extremely violent or forgetful. How do I know if I am dealing with Jekyll or Hyde at that moment? What about other people employed? Some might feel insecure, angry and bring down productivity finally.

  • Daniel Brezenoff

    February 27th, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    John, these are not unreasonable questions. However, stigmas are reinforced by incomplete or incorrect information, and your post is demonstrative. Violence among people with schizophrenia who are compliant with medications, when confounding variables (alcoholism, conduct disorders) are controlled for, is barely distinguishable from the general population. Most schizophrenic people are not violent, and to assume they will be, and thus deny them employment, would be neither rational nor fair.

    “Questionable behavior” is a rather broad term, but dangerous or disruptive behavior in the workplace need not be tolerated; that said, the presence of a diagnosis is not in itself reason enough to refuse employment to an applicant or to fire an employee, nor is a minor incident of forgetfulness or eccentricity adequate cause in most positions (airline pilots and brain surgeons, among others, might be exceptions). This distinction is paramount; refusing to employ a disabled person who can perform job duties with “reasonable accomodations” is, in the United States, illegal discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    Many people with treated schizophrenia function so well in society that their illness goes undetected by all but their closest relations, or simply causes them to present as slightly odd, whereas those who do not receive proper treatment, or who are simply too symptomatic to work, are impossible to miss, making your question, “How do I know if I am dealing with Jekyll or Hyde at that moment?” easy to answer (though the Jekyll and Hyde presentation sounds more like a bipolar dynamic than schizophrenia).

    Would you refuse to employ someone with diabetes because he might forget his insulin and have a seizure in front of customers? Would you fire a depressed employee to ensure she won’t commit suicide in your office? Would you terminate a person with cancer because she could negatively impact the morale of her colleagues when her hair falls out and her weight drops? How about firing a person with AIDS because other employees are irrationally afraid of contracting the illness?

    I trust the answer is no, and I see no difference between these scenarios and one involving treated schizophrenia – except prejudice, including that of other employees (though I’m not sure how they would know a person’s diagnosis, since that’s protected health information). But the misconceptions and emotional reactions of colleagues cannot justify the termination of or refusal to employ a mentally ill person, any more than it can justify the firing of a person who is HIV+ or practices an unpopular religion.

    At least not in America.

  • Kylie

    February 28th, 2009 at 4:07 AM

    I think there continues to be such a stigma surrounding meantal illness because more of us are not willing to stand up and speak up for our family members or even ourselves when this is something we are facing. It is better to get things out in the open rather than leave them shrouded in secrecy yet that is what so often happens when it comes to mental illness. The best way to battle this is with educating the public so that every one knows more about these illness but can also recognize that many of them are very treatable and manageable in life.

  • John

    February 28th, 2009 at 5:33 AM

    Thank u for setting my doubts and fears at rest. I guess most of us have misconceptions alright.

  • Dot

    February 28th, 2009 at 3:19 PM

    Although there should be no shame in mental illness there still is and probably always will be. It seems that there continues to be a great deal of misunderstanding about what mental illness is and therefore continues to cause a lot of confusion and concern over the issue. I hope that sites like this help to clarify things for so many other people but I know that time is really the only thing that will heal the misconceptions that people have about mental illness and those who suffer from them.

  • Eliza

    March 3rd, 2009 at 2:28 PM

    I am embarassed to say that I grew up with a father who suffered from staggering depression and mental illness yet I never told any of my friends as I feared this would reflect negatively on me. I think that there have been others who have done the same as me and tried to sweep it all under the rug.

  • Scott

    March 6th, 2009 at 3:48 AM

    My own father has just been diagnosed with dementia although many of us in the family have known this for a long time. He is in wonderful physical health so I am almost saddened to say that he will probably have to live for a while with this devastating illness. Are there places I could look for resources to help me and my mom better manage and cope with all that is coming our way?

  • daniel b

    March 6th, 2009 at 8:28 AM

    Scott, in what area do you live? That will help me answer your question more completely.

    For now, try these:

  • Scott

    March 8th, 2009 at 6:18 AM

    I live in the metro Atlanta area. I am going to take a look at these websites as well. Thanks for your help.

  • daniel b

    March 8th, 2009 at 9:05 AM

    Here are some leads that may help:

  • Jules

    March 9th, 2009 at 1:59 AM

    In a way I can understand and see why employers would not hire a person with mental illness, although I must admit, it doesn’t seem fair. It is the unknown, I believe, that may give the employers a reason not to hire someone with an illness. I think if we had more education and information on the types of mental illness and what to expect, then it would be easier for the employers to hire someone with mental illness.

  • Carrylyn

    March 15th, 2009 at 11:16 AM

    I have to admit that I had a brother who was mentally handicapped. Although it had embarrased me at times when around other people, due to they were not used to anyone like that, i loved my brother very much and we need more people to try and understand that people with mental illness are just like us and needs love just like everyone else.

  • Steph

    March 18th, 2009 at 1:40 AM

    Jules, you shouldn’t be embarrased. I work for a secondary education school, and many of these people have not only handicaps but mental illness as well. they are some of the sweetest people you would ever meet, but yes, there are times when they may say or do something that will cause you to turn red. People who don’t have to deal with mentally ill people just don’t understand that they are humans just as we are.

  • Patsi

    March 24th, 2009 at 3:18 AM

    It takes a very strong and special person to work with mentally handicapped people as Steph has mentioned. I have a sister who is mentally handicapped and they do have special needs. They are almost like a 6 year old in some ways. My sister is probably one of the nicest and innocent people you would ever meet. Although I don’t think she could make it in the working world, I am sure there is something out there she could do.

  • Josie

    March 26th, 2009 at 1:14 PM

    My mother had a sister who died many years ago and she was mentally ill. The thing to hdo when she was frowing up was to send these children somewhere else to live and they were often neglected and forgotten. I think my grandparents di visit their other daughter some but this is something that I have never heard about from them, only through conversations with my mom. I know that in the 50s and 60s there was a huge stigma about having mentally ill children and this caused so many families to turn away from their own offspring and to pretend like they had never even existed.

  • Sue

    July 30th, 2009 at 3:50 PM

    I believe we need more education for the general public. Most don’t understand mental illness and or the differences and therefore make judgements based on fear, stories, and the old movies with the ‘crazy’ person running around with a knife. It’s just not so. I myself suffer from ADHD and bi-polar disorder and have seen some of these affects first hand…and the main response is fear. I have used the “diabetic needing insulin’ comparison as way of explanation at time. But only so many people want to listen…I have been lucky in my life as I have many friends who understand and respect me inspite of my disease!.

  • themuse

    August 1st, 2009 at 6:08 PM

    Sue, my ex father-in-law was schizophrenic. I never found out until after he died that he was and I was very surprised. I guess I was ignorant enough then to put schizophrenia in the old movie category you speak of. I would have said he was an eccentric character if asked. When he died I was pregnant with our first child and my husband admitted later he was terrified the baby would be schizophrenic too.

    I don’t know if it is hereditary nor what the warning signs are. If that happens when he’s older, I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it and do what I can to help him. He’d be my son first and a man with a mental illness second.

    Mental illness should be discussed as easily as you would a broken ankle.

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