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STUDY: 9 In 10 People With Mental Illness Experience High Levels Of Discrimination


With an estimated one in four people suffering from mental illness at some point during their lives, it’s very likely that one day you or someone close to you will deal with a mental health problem. Yet mental illness is still surrounded by prejudice, ignorance and fear. A new study reveals the extent of the problem, finding that a staggering nine in ten people with mental illness report encountering high levels of discrimination because of their condition.

For the study, researchers at the nonprofit research organization RAND and the California Mental Health Services Administration (CalMHSA) surveyed 1,066 California residents who had previously reported mild to serious psychological distress in the California Health Interview Survey. Participants were asked about their general beliefs regarding mental illness stigma and discrimination, as well as their personal experiences with them.

The results revealed that just 41 percent of respondents believed that people are caring and sympathetic toward people with mental illnesses, while an overwhelming 81 percent believed that those with mental illness experience high levels of prejudice and discrimination. Additionally, more than two thirds of respondents said that they would definitely or probably hide a mental health problem they were experiencing from co-workers or classmates, and more than a third said they would also disguise mental health problems from family and friends.

Personal experiences with mental illness-related discrimination were found to be nearly ubiquitous. Nearly 9 in 10 of those who reported having had a mental health problem said they experienced discrimination as a result of it — most often in close social relationships, but also in high levels at school and work. Study respondents also reported high levels of discrimination from health care providers and law enforcement officials.

While the RAND study focused on California, the findings line up with research conducted elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally, with about nine out of ten people with mental health problems reporting the negative impact of stigma and discrimination on their lives. This extends to the workplace, as well. Nearly 80 percent of people with a mental illness cite employment as one of the areas of their life most affected by stigma and discrimination, and between 30 percent and 50 percent have been turned down for a job after disclosing their condition.

Additionally, surveys of U.S. employers reveal that about half of them are reluctant to hire someone with a history of mental illness or currently undergoing treatment for depression, and approximately 70 percent are reluctant to hire someone with a history of substance abuse or someone currently taking antipsychotic medication. (It is important to note that these behaviors are in direct violation of the Americans with Disability Act, which requires employers to make reasonable workplace accommodations for people with physical and mental disabilities.)

Stigma and discrimination have a profound impact on the lives of people with mental illness, affecting everything from psychological health and social relationships to job prospects and financial well-being. Studies show that mental illness stigma is also one of the main barriers to seeking mental health treatment. Indeed, some mental health experts say stigma is just as disabling as the mental disorder itself.

We obviously have a ways to go to help combat the discrimination and stigma that accompany mental illness. We can all make inroads in helping to reduce it, though, by taking a stand and correcting people’s misunderstandings when given an opportunity to do so. Here a few other ways you can help to combat mental illness stigma:

  • Avoid using labels such as “schizophrenic” or “borderline” when referring to someone who has a mental illness. A person is not their diagnosis; a person is not their disorder.
  • Avoid using derogatory terms like crazy, lunatic or retarded.
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations, when talking about someone who has a mental illness. Everyone has strengths that are not related to a mental illness, and you can focus on those when discussing an individual.
  • When someone makes a discriminatory or stigmatizing statement, explain why the statement was harmful and how important it is to understand mental illness as a disease, not a character flaw.
  • Be open — talk about mental health and illness. Secrecy is companion of stigma; honesty is the antidote.



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"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -- Carl Sagan


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