Mental illness and stigma — are we willing to change?

Mental health disorders can pose challenges to the people afflicted as well as their families. On top of this, these folks — neighbors, coworkers and friends — often experience prejudice and discrimination, barriers Bernice Pescosolido, a medical sociologist at Indiana University, describes as “yet another hit,” to efforts to have productive, enjoyable lives.

Bernice Pescosolido

Bernice Pescosolido

This stigma is entrenched and formidable. It’s behind the reluctance of many to socialize or work with people who have a mental or substance abuse disorder, is considered a major obstacle to effective treatment for many Americans who experience these devastating illnesses. It can produce discrimination in employment, housing, medical care and social relationships, and have a negative impact on the quality of life for these individuals, their families and friends.

Pescosolido, recently appointed chair of the international advisory council for actress/activist Glenn Close’s Bring Change 2 Mind foundation, described this as a “critical time” for rethinking anti-stigma efforts because of the substantial amount of research that supports a need for a new approach, on a local, national and international level.

A decade of national campaigns (tagline “a disease like any other”) to reduce it, accomplished little, but Pescosolido said there is ample evidence that “stigma” can be reduced.

“First of all, there is such wide variation in mental health stigma across countries, as our own global study has shown, so prejudice and discrimination is not inevitable,” she said. “Second, we know that prejudice can change, even if it is not eliminated. Just look at HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, cancer. Outside of disease, think of racial prejudice — there may still be some prejudice, but not like in the past. Third, we have studies that show that interventions can work, at least in the short run.”

I find this very encouraging – but then the big question.

“The question becomes whether we have the societal will to address discrimination,” she said.

To learn more about Bring Change 2 Mind and its interest in science-based approaches, read here.

This Huffington Post article, “Glenn Close: Let’s End the Stigma Around Mental Illness Now”, discusses last month’s One Mind for Research conference at UCLA, titled “Curing Brain Disease.”  The article mentions “The Science of Stigma” panel and includes insights from Pescosolido. The organizers also prepared this recap video.

Pescosolido also directs the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. Her scholarship in the sociological study of mental health, including research on mental health services, social networks, suicide and the stigma of mental illness, has received numerous awards. Pescosolido is a Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington.

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