Mental health stigma still exists


To the editor:

(re: “Don’t let mental health crisis get better of you,” Aug. 5)

In a recent Point of View, the question was asked that if there was acknowledgement of mental illness in the early 1900s, why is there still such a stigma today?

You pose the wrong question. Why do we still teach there is? What is there in us that is attracted to that mind game?

This is not the first time it has occurred.

I am 84, but early in my youth, we assiduously taught one another to say “there is a stigma” to rape, stopping only in the early 1970s when a group of highly personally empowered women told us to stop. That we had done enough harm.

We stopped. And, as I recall, not a single voice was raised in opposition. Our consciousnesses were raised to what we had been doing, so we stopped.

Before that, the world witnessed in 1930s Germany the most egregious use of that mind game: The insistence that people believe — and act upon — “the stigma” of Jews. Few there dared resist. Any who did risked their own lives.

It was that instance, etched in my mind, that made me realize the power inherent in declaring a “stigma.” The creation of a “them.”

The next version, that for a brief and terrible time resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, was the AIDS stigma. Even doctors pledged to first do no harm stood by as life after life was lost before accepting it was an illness, and to address it as an illness and not a plague upon a “them.”

Today we are being urged to direct a “stigma” again — this time against the illnesses we are mistakenly led to call “mental,” of the mind, not of the physical brain. And again, we are far too willingly responding with compliance. The negative consequences were predictable.

There are two singular consequences directing a stigma, to participating in directing one, to give assent. One is the actions upon those at whom it is directed. Those results — invariably negative — are well documented.

The second is the effect on the minds of those accepting it. Prejudice can fog the mind so completely that seeing clearly is impossible. Research into these illnesses is underfunded, progress is thereby limited. We know far too little about each of these major illnesses, largely because we have not treated them as illnesses, but as inconveniences.

We spend millions “fighting the stigma” of these illnesses, and not one cent fighting those who taught and are teaching it, so they prevail. It is time we said, “Enough! Stop! You have done enough harm!”

Harold Maio

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Harold Maio,