Tips for Tackling the Stigma of Mental Illness


By Rebecca Chicosky, Contributing Writer

Photos by Rebecca Chicosky

Films like “Split,” a 2016 horror film centered around a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID), shock and horrify theater-goers with the Hollywood-glamorized terror of mental illness. Whenever mass shootings occur Facebook and news articles flood with comments and beg very similar questions: Who was the shooter? Why did they do it? What mental illness do they have?

Media misconceptions and stigma regarding mental illness, particularly DID and schizophrenia, can often lead individuals to spiral down a path riddled in stereotypes. Although colleges try to prepare students in psychology, influences from outside sources bleed into educated minds. How can those informed about the reality of mental illness tackle stigma?

Dr. Guy Boysen, professor of psychology at McKendree University and passionate researcher on mental health stigmatization has three ways that anyone can implement to reduce stigma.

The most basic and useful combatant is seeking out formal education on mental illness, particularly causes, symptoms, and treatment. When the only source of mental illness information is through the local news channel and social media, the public may be fed false or skewed information based on previously held stereotypes or through the informant’s own ideas. However, formal education allows us to get the closest perspective we can.

“Many people don’t know substance use disorder is a mental disorder,” Dr. Boysen stated. “They don’t consider it an ‘illness.’ It’s the same with dyslexia. Many people don’t think of it as mental, but just words that mix up on a page.”

Raina Isaacs, a senior psychology undergraduate at McKendree University experienced this confusion. “I thought that with any mental illness you either had it or didn’t. After taking abnormal [psychology]… I learned that all mental illnesses have a spectrum and you could fall anywhere on the spectrum.”

Although the facts are useful, Dr. Boysen says another way to reduce stigma is to understand that mental illness does not exist outside of people. Humanizing these disorders helps to let the public know that mental illness is not detached like a monster hiding under a child’s bed, but something that everyday people may handle on a daily basis. Dr. Boysen notes that bringing the humanity back could be as simple as donating time at a nursing home where the elderly may suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. In addition, seeking out and sharing movies and media that portray mental illness accurately help reinforce the idea of humanity as well.

“A good example of a well-done movie that deals with mental illness is ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ The story featured a mental illness, but it didn’t take away from the story. We still saw John Nash [the main character] as a person first before finding out that he had a mental illness,” Dr. Boysen commented.

If the previous techniques seem too passive for a fighting spirit, a more direct way is possible. Protesting and campaigning against stigma and promoting humanization have shown real results. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) held a 1999 campaign against Nestle USA’s taffy flavors named “Psycho Sam,” “Looney Jerry,” and “Weird Wally,” stating that they fed into the stigma of mental illness. Eventually, this caught the attention of First Lady Hillary Clinton and was mentioned in a White House Conference on Mental Health. Dr. Boysen mentions that although this is an in-your-face technique, it is important to act in line with facts and not with malice or hate.

Although colleges prepare their students to tackle real-world issues, sometimes skewed media sources can demonize mental illness to the point where stereotypes become truth. By combating the stigma of mental illness, progress against stigmatization can continue to be made throughout the decades.

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