Mentally ill internalize social stigmas

Sara Bennett

Study: Society’s expectations may have negative consequences

More than 27 million adults a year seek help for mental health problems, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Web site.

While not all are diagnosed with a severe mental illness, those who are may feel worse about themselves because of the stigma society attaches to their diagnosis.

Social Psychology Quarterly released an article titled, “Stigma Sentiments and Self-Meanings,” which discusses the negative stigma attached to the diagnosis of a mental illness and how it affects a person. The article shows there is a connection between society’s views of the mentally ill and how the mentally ill see themselves.

The authors, Amy Kroska, Kent State associate professor of sociology, and Sarah Harkness, Stanford University doctoral student, used data collected from patients recently diagnosed with a severe mental illness and compared it to data collected from non-patients.

“The (participants) in this sample all made contact with the mental health system in Indianapolis,” Kroska said, referring to how the data from those diagnosed as mentally ill was collected.

Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder were just a few of the more commonly known diagnoses the patients received.

Participants in the study used three universal dimensions of evaluation (good versus bad), potency (powerful versus weak) and activity (active versus inactive) to rate how they see themselves and how others see them.

Researchers hypothesized that those diagnosed with a mental illness would see themselves the same way society expects a mentally ill person to be and those not diagnosed would see themselves as opposite of a person with a mental illness. After collecting the evaluations, the researchers found their hypothesis to be true.

One example Kroska gave referred to the evaluation dimension of the study.

“If (those diagnosed) viewed a mentally ill person as good, they would view themselves as good,” Kroska said.

This works in the opposite direction as well, she said

“This data suggests the perception related to the mentally ill is expected,” she said. “The patients evaluate themselves less positively than everyone else.”

This happens because the way society views the mentally ill becomes internalized as part of the mentally ill’s own identity, and they expect others to see them in the same way.

The theory Kroska used as the basis for her study is called the Modified Labeling Theory, which states that there are negative consequences to psychiatric treatment and that these consequences are caused by society’s views of the mentally ill, according to “Stigma Sentiments and Self-Meanings.”

The negative consequences include patients expecting others to discriminate against or think less of them after diagnosis, which then leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in their lives, Kroska said.

Michael Moore, assistant director of Kent State’s Psychological Clinic, agrees with the basic idea of the study.

“It’s not a matter of belief; it’s a fairly established fact that definitely there is a stigma,” Moore said.

Moore believes part of the basis for the public’s perceptions of the mentally ill comes from the media’s incorrect portrayal of such people.

“Public perception is that (the mentally ill) are violent,” he said. “The problem is that the ones who make the news are the ones who have assaulted someone.”

This public perception also plays a very strong role in how the mentally ill feel about themselves, according to the findings in Kroska’s article.

Moore said this could be a problem for those who need help.

“It’s a pervasive phenomena,” Moore said. “It could prevent someone from getting the help they need.”

Contact minority affairs, health and nursing and religion reporter Sara Bennett at [email protected].