Our Society Is Still Giving Mental Illness a Bum Rap

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1993 | Go to article overview

Our Society Is Still Giving Mental Illness a Bum Rap


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


Recently, DC Comics decided to kill off Superman. The assassin was to be an escapee from a galactic mental institution. DC's plan made news headlines. However, a protest by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill stopped the plot. NAMI objected to the unfounded stereotyping of people with mental illness as deranged killers.

NAMI is currently spearheading a nationwide campaign to combat the social stigma of mental illness.

Mental illnesses are far more common than cancer, diabetes, heart disease or arthritis. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated one out of four families in this country will have a loved one with a serious mental illness. More hospital beds are occupied by people with mental illness than with any other disease.

Serious mental illnesses include thought disorders like schizophrenia, affective disorders like depression and manic depression (now called bipolar disorder), and disabling phobias, autism and attention deficit disorder (common in children).

As common as these illnesses are, the multitudes who suffer from them still endure a social stigma -- a subtle and not-so-subtle shame and ridicule our society places on people afflicted. The stigma keeps mental illness in the closet. It prevents people from seeking treatment and it stifles funding for services and research. It closes minds and fuels discrimination.

One person afflicted with mental illness said, "The stigma is harder to deal with than the illness itself." No one need be reluctant, for example, to write "diabetic" on a job application, but to jot down any hint of a history of mental illness would probably kill one's chances of a job completely.

We are becoming more senstive to the needs of a wide diversity of people. People with serious mental illness are living their lives more normally in our communities, workplaces and parishes.

This social stigma shows itself in slang words like nuts, wacko, psycho and lunatic. Films, TV and comics especially exacerbate the problem. How many popular movies have portrayed serial killers or violence perpetrated by "psychos"? Yet the term "psychopath" is not the same as "psychotic. …

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Our Society Is Still Giving Mental Illness a Bum Rap
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