Stigmatization: Myths and Minds

Anti_Stigmatization.jpgIt has only been within the past decade or two that we have begun to better understand the biochemical causes of mental illness. Although there is still much to be discovered, it is now known that mental illnesses are similar to physical illnesses, since they often have biochemical causes and medical treatments.Most cultures view or have viewed severely mentally ill persons as crazy, lacking will-power, possessed, frightening or violent. One universal element of this stigmatization and discrimination against the mentally ill is the traditional belief that severe mental illness is caused by something supernatural or paranormal, such as possession by spirits, curses or sorcery attacks, influence by the moon (“lunacy”), divine punishment, karma, or is the result of a moral transgression. This myth about the cause of mental illness keeps the stigmatization of the mentally ill strong around the world. (There are exceptions, such as Native Americans, who historically have shown tolerance, compassion and respect for mentally ill people).

In the past, these supernatural explanations were widely accepted. In less advanced societies today, many of these myths still exist. “Treatment” can sometimes take the form of exorcism, torture or bartering with evil spirits. This is not to say that some traditional supernatural treatments were/are of no value, however. Again using the example of Native Americans, Native American shamans summoned supernatural powers to treat the mentally ill, incorporating rituals of atonement and purification. (1) A case could be made that this treatment can be compared to modern psychotherapy as far as outcome.

Today, even in the most advanced societies around the world, there is a certain supernatural-based prejudice against severely mentally ill people stemming from dogma about literal possession by evil spirits in the form of demonic manifestations, combined with the belief that sometimes the behaviors of a severely mentally ill person demonstrate spirit possession and do not stem from a biochemical cause. This is not to debate whether or not spirit possession or other supernatural explanations exist, but rather to demonstrate that severe mental illness is a separate entity from the supernatural and can be explained through science. Still, science doesn’t claim to have all the answers and things we call supernatural today might be explained by science tomorrow. The point is, labeling a mentally ill person as possessed by evil spirits and abandoning them to only religious solutions denies them a chance for symptom relief through psychiatric care or alternative medicine.

People with mental illness sometimes castigate themselves. “Individuals suffering from depression and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness because of their illness, may focus on religious themes of judgment. Some people believe that God must be punishing them or why would God have them in this situation. There is a strong feeling that the person is the guilty one, who has failed others and him/herself. The person believes that punishment from God is deserved.” (2) Again, this is not to debate God issues, but to point out that now it is widely accepted and understood that mental illness is a malfunction of the neurotransmitters of the brain. It is a biochemical imbalance, not moral weakness, divine judgment or other supernatural cause. So the same logic used by an individual to castigate him for a mental illness must be applied to any physical illness.

Ignorance continues to fuel prejudice and reinforces stigma. We need to accept that a mental illness is an illness. We have become aware that an imbalance in our bodies can increase the likelihood that we will have a disease like diabetes. It is time that we understand the same is true for mental illnesses. (3)

Society needs to view mental illness in a less judgmental, more scientific way. In the best of cases, we hope that individuals with mental illness are treated with respect and compassion. Mental illness should be treated with research, medicine and legislation rather than moralizing. (4)


(1) Mental “History of Mental Illness”.

(2) Pathways to Promise. “Working with People with Mental Illness – Themes“.

(3) Stephens, The Reverend Charles J. “Attacking the Stigma of Mental Illness”. (2002).

(4) Palmer, Ann. “20th Century History of the Treatment of Mental Illness: A Review“.