Why the Stigma for Mental Illness Will Never Go Away

There’s a shit-load of research on this, but I am resting the majority of my argument on a single one (which I will then back up with a few others). The study (Seltzer et al., 1997) compared the adult sibling relationship of the mentally ill with the adult sibling relationships of those with mental retardation – and it found that the greater the contact between the non-disabled and their mentally retarded sibling, the happier they were. In contrast, the greater the contact between the non-disturbed and their mentally ill sibling, the more unhappy they were.

I have a mentally retarded sibling – a sister with down syndrome. I’ve also lived with people with chronic mental illnesses (major depression and schizophrenia) – and I can tell you easily which I prefer. Really, I don’t think it really requires the study or my experience to prove this. People who are depressed or chronically anxious are quite simply not fun to be around. Never will and never have been. At the end of the day, that is what the mental illness stigma is based upon. People do not like hanging out with people that are unpleasant. This is not news, nor is it shocking. If one does not like spending time with someone, one will attempt to avoid their company – which is a part of stigma.

The whole idea of spending tons of money on trying to equate mental illness with physical illness or other ways of making people feel that it’s okay to have a mental illness is absurd. Physical illnesses generally do not change people’s personality. You can spend time with a friend in a hospital and have fun – it can also closen your bond. The same generally speaking cannot be said with the majority of those with mental illness – particularly the more severe and chronic kinds. Unless we can educate the public enough so that they can easily differentiate between different kinds of mental illnesses (which would lead to them more selectively stigmatizing particular mental illnesses), the broad stigma will remain.

And guess what? That’s okay. What’s needed is not to lower the stigma (although yes it’s a big deal, as the meta-analysis below explains) but to raise the attractiveness of treatment – perhaps, as psychoanalysis once did – to normalize the treatment – to emphasize how anyone could benefit from undertaking this. Hence you could both promote the well-being of the well and heal the sick. Imaginative ideas on how we can make treatment more attractive are what is really needed – and there’s plenty to choose from that have research support. Combined marijuiana/psychotherapy treatment, magic mushroom/psychotherapy treatment, using greater creativity and imagination in the design of psychotherapy offices and buildings (making them more like churches than medical facilities), focusing on the human narrative and our place in it – and our connection with our ancestors in our publications and outreaches, ect, ect. Why do we remain so bound to the conventional when it is obvious it is not working? This is beyond silly. Something needs to change – and NOW.

Note: The only hope of removing the stigma is to eradicate the concept of mental illness (thus mental illness would still be stigmatized, but this new thing – who knows?), but rather associate disturbances as extremes of normal variation – but even then I wonder. 


Clement, S., Schauman, O., Graham, T., Maggioni, F., Evans-Lacko, S., Bezborodovs, N., … & Thornicroft, G. (2015). What is the impact of mental health-related stigma on help-seeking? A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies. Psychological medicine, 45(01), 11-27.

Eakes, G. G. (1995). Chronic sorrow: The lived experience of parents of chronically mentally ill individuals. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 9(2), 77-84

George, A., Vickers, M. H., Wilkes, L., & Barton, B. (2007). Chronic grief: Experiences of working parents of children with chronic illness. Contemporary nurse, 23(2), 228-242.

Seltzer, M. M., Greenberg, J. S., Krauss, M. W., Gordon, R. M., & Judge, K. (1997). Siblings of adults with mental retardation or mental illness: Effects on lifestyle and psychological well-being. Family Relations, 395-405.

Wolfe, B., Song, J., Greenberg, J. S., & Mailick, M. R. (2014). Ripple effects of developmental disabilities and mental illness on nondisabled adult siblings.Social Science & Medicine, 108, 1-9.

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