Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Service-Learning with the Mentally Ill: Softening the Stigma

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Service-Learning with the Mentally Ill: Softening the Stigma

Article excerpt

Negative attitudes or stigmas toward those who have mental illness are real, painful, and damaging. Graf and colleagues (2004) reported that for people with mental illnesses, experiencing negative social stigma is strongly associated with a lower overall quality of life. According to the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), negative stigmas discourage people with mental illness from getting mental health treatment; keep them from getting good jobs and advancing in the workplace; lead to fear, mistrust, and violence; result in inadequate insurance coverage; and can lead to prejudice and discrimination (National Mental Health Information Center, 2008). Stigmas against the mentally ill are common in today's society. Johnstone (2001) observed that these negative views are "deeply ingrained (and often structurally reinforced) societal attitudes of fear, ignorance, and intolerance" (p. 204), making them extremely difficult to modulate.

The mainstream media may play a part in formulating and perpetuating negative attitudes toward those with mental illnesses. For example, despite the fact that those with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime, they are most often portrayed on television and in the movies as the perpetrators of crime (Eisenberg, 2005). Widely distributed news coverage of the small minority of people with mental illness who do commit heinous crimes, along with mainstream media's pervasively negative representation of those with mental illnesses, is common and often times sensationalized (e.g., Lawson & Fouts, 2004; Stuart, 2006). For example, The NBC News Corporation (NBC News, 2008) recently reported an account of a man who drowned his three young children in a hotel bathtub in Rockville, Maryland. He was embroiled with his ex-wife in a bitter custody battle when he took the childrens' lives and then attempted to take his own. World-wide news accounts of this tragic circumstance were quick to report that he had a "history of mental problems." The only evidence they cited detailing the presence of mental illness was that he had been seen "sleeping in his car" and engaged in the practice of "bringing strangers to his home."

Reports such as these may have long-standing and wide-reaching effects on how the general public views those who struggle with mental health issues. The mentally ill tend to be characterized as dangerous, violent, unintelligent, isolative, and impersonal often resulting in negative views and attitudes toward them that may translate into discrimination and/or prejudicial practices. For instance, Page (1977) found that researchers responding to classified advertisements for apartments or rooms for rent, when posing as a person with a mental illness, or on behalf of a person with mental illness, were "refused rooms for rent significantly more often that were persons using no mental illness identification" (p. 85). In fact, they were discriminated against equally often as researchers feigning to be criminals soon to be released from prison. Society's biases and stigmas directly impact those with mental illness in many ways.

In a UK survey of people with mental illness, Stuart (2006) noted that over half of mental health consumers reported that stigma from negative media coverage had a deleterious effect on their own mental health. One third of the respondents reported that their natural and informal social support networks (i.e., friends, family members, etc.) had withdrawn their support following negative media coverage of mental illness. These respondents put off applying for jobs, abandoned plans to do volunteer work, and experienced hostility from neighbors or local communities following these events. The general public, using readily available media accounts as a primary source of information, has historically approached those with mental illness with fear, distrust, and dislike (e.g., Cumming & Cumming, 1957; Nunnaly, 1961). …

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