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Stigma of Mental Health Diagnosis

The stigma of mental illness depends on the illness. Some conditions, such as depression, are now commonly accepted, and people suffering from them gain wide understanding. Other conditions, however, such as schizophrenia, still carry the burden of association with “craziness” and potential violence. Being formally diagnosed as depressed will likely not prevent you from getting a job, or cause you to lose a job. Being diagnosed as schizophrenic, however, may mean never getting past the resume stage, and may cause landlords to refuse to rent to you, friends to abandon you, and even parents to disown you. In fact, on a schizophrenia support group, I spoke to one parent of an adult schizophrenic son who cut off all contact with him because, in her words, “We can’t have any more upsets.”

Because of the way the hiring process works in western countries, having a diagnosis of schizophrenia usually means permanent unemployment. Most people with this diagnosis have a gap in their work history, which makes getting hired difficult in the first place unless the applicant comes up with a lie (the most common being, “illness in family” during the employment-gap years). People suffering from depression and bipolar disorder, on the other hand, don’t face quite so much of an obstacle over their diagnosis, and can even take advantage of affirmative-action quotas at some employers, such as the government.

Because of public education and the increasing prescription of antidepressant medication, the diagnosis of depression is now fairly common and readily accepted. Mentioning to a new potential friend that you suffer from depression is likely to elicit sympathy and accommodative behavior. Saying you’re schizophrenic is likely to scare the new friend away. In fact, I spoke to one schizophrenic who met another schizophrenic in casual contact. Upon hearing of the diagnosis, the other man, who himself had that diagnosis, narrowed his eyes and said, “You’re not violent, are you?”

Although popular culture no longer promotes the belief that people suffering from mental illness must be evil, as it did in the 1970s and before, some mental health diagnoses still carry heavy stigma, especially in smaller cities and rural communities where less money has been invested in public education. A schizophrenic living in a village usually finds people shunning her, and may be unable to find a landlord who will rent to her, despite the fact that her rent checks may be cut by the government’s disability department and timely rent payments may therefore be guaranteed. Rural people would often much rather rent to a drug dealer than to a schizophrenic, because they understand the former but have misconceptions about the latter.

In short, there is stigma about some mental health diagnoses, and there is much less stigma about others. In order to equalize the balance, much further public education is needed.