Facing other people can be one of the most difficult challenges for people with a mental disorder. The stigma attached to mental disorders arises from ignorance and the fear that is born out of it, a fear that is all too often reinforced by the mis-representation of people with mental disorders in the media.
As a group people with mental disorders are not unpredictable or dangerous; they are not lazy or ‘moral failures’; and getting better is not simply a matter of them ‘pulling themselves together’. Severe forms of mental disorder have a strong biological basis, and are certainly not ‘all in the mind’.
For people with mental disorders, stigma can create a vicious circle of alienation and discrimination that hinders progress to recovery by promoting anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug misuse, social isolation, unemployment, homelessness, and institutionalization. Many people with a mental disorder report that they are more distressed by stigma than by their symptoms themselves; in some cases they fear this stigma to such an extent that they are unable to accept that they are ill, and so do not seek out the help that they need.
For all this, mental disorders are very common. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, one in four people in the world will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their life. In the UK, mental health accounts for up to one third of all general practice consultations, and every year the National Health Service (NHS) spends more money on mental healthcare than on any other area of healthcare, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and primary care. Yet mental disorders are little talked about, perhaps one of the last real taboos in modern society.
My book, The Meaning of Madness, proposes to open up the debate on mental disorders, to get people interested and talking, and to get them thinking. For example, what is schizophrenia? Why is it so common? Why does it affect human beings and not animals? What might this tell us about our mind and body, language and creativity, music and religion? What are the boundaries between mental disorder and ‘normality’? Is there a relationship between mental disorder and genius? These are some of the difficult but important questions that my book confronts, with the overarching aim of exploring what mental disorders can teach us about human nature and the human condition.
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, Growing from Depression, and other books.