Life opportunities for some individuals in our community (such as those who have a mental illness) are undermined by stigmatizing attitudes and discriminating behaviors. Research suggests that people who are viewed to be personally responsible for their mental illness are likely to be viewed negatively and are unlikely to receive help from others. Conversely, we extend compassion and assistance when we view people as not responsible for their mental illness. For those we perceive as being “dangerous,” and thus feared, we recommend community avoidance or segregation.

Dr. David Satcher, past Surgeon General, wrote extensively about the effects of stigma in his 1999 report on Mental Illness. “Even more than other areas of health and medicine, the mental health field is plagued by disparities in the availability of and access to its services. These disparities are viewed readily through the lenses of racial and cultural diversity, age, and gender. A key disparity often hinges on a person’s financial status.”

He also speaks to the “subtle” and “overt” forms of stigma. “It appears as prejudice and discrimination, fear, distrust, and stereotyping. It prompts many people to avoid working, socializing, and living with people who have a mental disorder. It reduces access to resources and opportunities, e.g. housing, jobs and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for care. It gives insurers in the public sector as well as the private sector permission to restrict coverage for mental health services in ways that would not be tolerated for other illnesses.”

In his report to the country, the Surgeon General came to the following conclusion – “Stigma results in outright discrimination and abuse. More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society.”

While Dr. Satcher was focusing on the stigma that challenges those who experience mental illness, his sobering statements can be extended to others in our community; particularly those who are dependent on alcohol/drugs, live in poverty, have experienced trauma, or are homeless.

The fact remains that these individuals/families are our neighbors, relatives, co-workers, and friends. Investing in ALL of our citizens strengthens us as a community.

William Greer