Mental illness and social stigma: Longstanding challenges and modern iterations
Marina Economou – Lalioti, Professor of Psychiatry of the Medical School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA)
Mental illness is a term used to describe a wide range of symptoms and experiences that cause problems in a person’s thinking, feeling, and behavior, as well as in their communication with others. Mental illness can affect people of all ages—children, adolescents, adults, and seniors—and can occur in any family. It can refer to conditions very different from one another, ranging from depression and anxiety disorders or phobias, to the most severe, which is schizophrenia. Unfortunately, even today, despite significant scientific progress in research and treatment, mental illness is still accompanied by prejudices, misconceptions, and fears that give it the character of myth and stigma.
The stigma associated with mental illness has roots that go far back in time. Sociologically, it has been described as an “undesirable, discreditable quality attributed to the individual, which denies them the right to full social acceptance while forcing them to hide the cause of this negative social treatment.” Among the causes, apart from specific behaviors and conditions, there are also pathological entities to which particularly negative characteristics are attributed. Disorders with visible signs, such as leprosy and syphilis in the past, were thus stigmatized, later giving way to more modern scourges, such as cancer and AIDS. Therefore, in recent years, the word “stigma” has been used to indicate that certain diseases raise prejudices against people suffering from them. Undoubtedly, the most stigmatized pathological entities today are still mental illnesses.
Thus, people with mental illnesses have to deal—apart from the disease itself—with social stigma, prejudice, and society’s fear of the “other.” Let us not forget, after all, that the fear of mental illness, the fear of madness, along with the fear of death, are the archetypal fears of human beings. And that these two fears are linked to the element of loss; the fear of loss of life, on the one hand, and the fear of loss of sanity on the other. The fear, ultimately, of the loss of the essence of human existence itself.
The timeless issue of stigma during the charged period of the pandemic seems to surface in new forms and versions, in accordance with the theory that suggests that the many stigmatize the few. The leper was stigmatized, the “mad” person was and is stigmatized, just as the person with mental illness is uncritically and irreverently etched in the modern collective unconscious.
But today, with the relentless invasion of the coronavirus into our lives, how many are “the many”? How many are “the few”? In the new, idiosyncratic pandemic dictionary, what is a minority and what is a majority? It seems as if there has been an informal democratization in the diffusion of stigma. We are all potential carriers of a disease—a contagious one. We are called “cases,” with all the negative semantic connotations of the term. We are all potentially sick from a disease that is no longer far from us; a disease that is threatening us, with fear lurking.
The universality of COVID-19, instead of frightening us, should concern us more broadly and be a call for a change of mindset, a call to reclaim reason, a humane call for what we once did not understand, for whoever we once stigmatized as “different.” The name of the disease is of little significance.
Marina Economou – Lalioti, participated in the discussion entitled "Mental Health"