Millions of people around the world suffer from a mental illness. One in four, in fact. Yet the rights of people with mental illnesses are still unfairly limited. People with aspirations and goals. Opportunities stripped simply because of the stigma around mental illness. This limits society’s potential. While people with mental illness may be different, aren’t we all different from one another? Everyone has their own story. Their own set of challenges. Their own amazing strengths. And it is up to society to embrace and encourage these differences that make our world so unique.
I interviewed Dr. Patrick Corrigan who is Distinguished Professor the Illinois Institute of Technology as well as an active mental illness advocate. He gave important insight on stigma and how to combat it.
B Stigma-Free: How has the stigma around mental illness changed from when you started your work?
Dr. Corrigan: It’s probably getting worse. There’s pretty good evidence that the degree to which we equate mental illness with these God awful shootings in schools leads to the public believing that people with mental illness are dangerous. A colleague of mine in Australia did a study that showed that after the Sandy Hook shooting with the kids in Connecticut, the stigma in Australia got worse. Also stigma tends to bring alive bigots and perhaps the biggest bigot we got in the United States right now is that guy in the White House. He said after Parkland that the Parkland shooter was able to do what he did because we’re not locking up those crazy guys anymore, and so he called for more institutions and state hospitals which is totally contrary to anybody’s notion of what’s good mental health care.
B Stigma-Free: How would you say we could help the stigma improve, or get rid of the stigma?
Dr. Corrigan: What does not make for good stigma change is education. Research is pretty clear that programs that try to contrast the myths of mental illness with the facts, for adults, typically have no beneficial effects, and sometimes might make things worse. Clearly what makes stigma better is the degree to which the public interacts with people with mental illness. What changed racism in the United States is the degree to which the white majority interacted with the black minorities peers. In my lifetime, gay stigma has gone away hugely. Not because my kids learned in school that being gay was genetic but because by the time they got to school they knew they had two gay uncles and a gay minister and people came out and so it’s the same thing with mental illness. When people with mental illness come out, that’s gonna have a big change.
B Stigma-Free: Hence the title of your book.
Dr. Corrigan: Yes, “Coming Out Proud to Erase the Stigma of Mental Illness” is about telling our stories. We have a new book for college students, same thing. It’s the story of 30 college students, mostly through “Active Minds”, telling their story of recovery.
B Stigma-Free: So, how do you think your experiences have influenced your own work with stigma?
Dr. Corrigan: I am a person with a serious mental illness. I have been hospitalized, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, took my pills this morning. You know I am a straight male. While I am all for gay rights, I don’t live them and therefore don’t have a lot of grounding in which to understand it. Mental illness is personal to me, I do understand it, therefore I’m quite motivated to change it.
B Stigma-Free: Do you think that people are aware of how they are perpetuating the stigma or do you think that the stigma is unintentional?
Dr. Corrigan: I think the average person is totally oblivious to the idea of mental illness stigma. I think we have made huge strides in racism and sexism and sexual orientation. I think people don’t understand that the stigma of mental illness is discrimination. I think we’re much more concerned about treating people than we are about the rights of people with serious mental illness.
B Stigma-Free: How would you say the stigma related to bipolar disorder is different from the stigma related to other mental illnesses?
Dr. Corrigan: There is some debate whether within psychiatric illnesses some are worse than others. When I’m talking psychiatric illnesses right now I am excluding substance use disorders. There’s some thought for example of stigma of schizophrenia is worse than the stigma of bipolar disorder which is worse than the stigma of general depression. I think depression is less stigmatized because people understand it. I think 100% of the population have depression and anxiety. I don’t think that rises to the level of psychiatric diagnosis but I think everybody has been pretty seriously depressed and anxious so they can understand it. The kind of mania in bipolar disorder is a lot less common. And then you have substance use disorders, I think substance use disorder is clearly stigmatized more than mental illness, in part because the stigma of substance use disorder is legal. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects you on the job or protects you in the school, does not protect you if you are actively abusing drugs and alcohol. So the stigma in drugs and alcohol is a much bigger challenge.
B Stigma-Free: What is something you want people to know about the stigma around mental illness?
Dr. Corrigan: That we should not expect people with mental illness to pass as normal. That we should expect that we’ll stand alongside a person with mental illness as they are. Again a good analogy, we would not expect a lesbian or gay to pass as straight. We would instead demand that everybody in their community stands in solidarity with a gay person.
B Stigma-Free: What message do you think is important for me to include in an article I would be writing?
Dr. Corrigan: I think it’s important to understand that the stigma of any illness is as unjust as racism and sexism and alike. We now realize where 80 years ago we did not, that judging somebody based on their skin color is a moral sin and withholding work or independent living opportunities for them is a grave injustice. The parallel, which I think the population understands less well, the parallel applies to the stigma of mental illness.
Mental illness will never go away. But the stigma around it can. The best way to overcome this stigma is by directly interacting with people with mental illnesses. Dr. Corrigan’s comparison of mental illness discrimination and racism is a perfect example of how effective we can be through interaction. Mental illness discrimination is just as wrong as racism and sexism and when the public is able to realize that, we will make huge strides in eliminating the stigma. Every person should be treated with respect and inclusion. Our community is missing out on some incredible people right now and erasing the stigma will bring light to all the potential we have within our society.
Patrick Corrigan is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Corrigan is a licensed clinical psychologist setting up and providing services for people with serious mental illnesses and their families for more than 30 years. He is also principal investigator of the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, the only NIMH-funded research center examining the stigma of mental illness. Corrigan is a prolific researcher having authored or edited 16 books and more than 400 papers.
Erin O’Leary is a graduating senior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School. She interned at B Stigma-Free for the last three weeks of her high school senior year, and interviewed Dr. Corrigan as part of her internship. She recognizes stigma in her everyday life and has been working to spread awareness. She enjoys writing and is excited to pursue a major in communications at Fairfield University in September 2018.
Owen Granberg is a graduating senior who collaborated with Erin for the interview as part of his internship at B Stigma-Free. He wants to spread awareness about the harmful effects of stigma through his writing. He’s enthusiastic about attending Sacred Heart University in the fall of 2018, and can’t wait for new opportunities to express his creativity in the future.