People with mental illness experience disproportionate levels of employment and housing discrimination*, among other things. The incorrect belief that most of us are a public danger or menace – “time bombs” ready to explode in violence – plays a large role in the prejudice we experience6. During the past four decades, negative attitudes rooted in these unfounded beliefs have only intensified, resulting in greater social ostracism7. Where once the “mad” were simply viewed as another form of human diversity, we are now routinely – thanks also to the disease discourse used to describe mental illness – viewed as almost subhuman, atavistic beings8.
And research shows it is mainstream media’s coverage of mental illness – including reporters’ tendency to focus on high-profile, extreme, or violent cases – that plays a significant role in the negative stereotypes people have toward us today9. One Canadian study examining media coverage related to mental illness from 2005 – 2010 found, for example, that danger, violence and criminality were direct themes in 40 percent of articles10. Positive themes relating to recovery or rehabilitation were found in only 18 percent of articles, and 83 percent of stories lacked any quotes or perspective from individuals with actual lived experience of mental illness.
This is important not only because the entrenched stigma results in higher levels of unemployment and housing but also because it is internalized, causing low self-esteem, self-prejudice and feelings of worthlessness. Studies have found that the rejection and humiliation experienced by the mentally ill is tantamount to a “second illness” – that the prejudice and other consequences experienced from being labeled “severely mentally ill” has twice as large a negative impact on us than the “mental illness” itself.11 We buy into the “master status” of “mentally ill,” start believing we’re as defective as the general public – and many clinicians – think we are, and start giving up on life in general, as well as ever being viewed as valid or valued human beings.
That, readers, is why I believe, in the rare cases it is a “mentally ill” individual who commits one of these constant acts of public violence – that it’s not because the person is “crazy”(unless they’re experiencing a psychotic break, or delusional state). I believe it is due to the prejudice, stigma, discrimination, and ridicule that person experiences from being referred to by such slurs as “crazy.”
(Keep in mind that, after reviewing the manifestoes WDBJ shooter Vester Flannigan left in his wake this week, criminologists have concluded he acted out of the belief he’d been maligned, ridiculed and discriminated against, on account of his race, throughout his career. While his beliefs appear to lack credibility, they could have stemmed from past experiences of legitimate discrimination; if anything, Flannigan’s motivations point to the underlying current of disempowerment which I believe is the primary source of violence today.)
I tried calling some media outlets Friday, after watching Andy Parker go on TV again and refer to all mentally ill individuals as “crazy” – in his shaming and derisive way – following his visit with the news station and Virginia’s governor. I called a reporter and producer to point out how the media’s unqualified coverage of such inflammatory statements exacerbates the discrimination I and others routinely face.
The New York Times reporter I spoke to countered with something like, “Well, that’s not exactly true; the mentally ill are not allowed to be discriminated against – the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you against that.”
In theory, the ADA does entitle the psychiatrically disabled to the same civil rights protections, equal-opportunity employment, and accommodations of the physically disabled. In practice, however, the ADA does not.
Susan Stefan, a University of Miami law professor, has studied this issue. Among the things she’s found, after reviewing thousands of court cases, is that employers win in more than 95 percent of ADA cases filed by the psychiatrically disabled and heard in federal appellate courts12. According to Stefan, employment discrimination claims filed by the mentally ill are subject to particularly venomous attacks by ADA opponents and given “short shrift” by courts in comparison to physical disability cases.
“When President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Rose Garden among hundreds of people with disabilities, the mood was one of tremendous hope and triumph… Ten years later, it is increasingly clear that these hopes are not being realized for people with [mental] disabilities… [The] belief that Title I of the ADA protects an individual from employment discrimination based on psychiatric disability or perceived psychiatric disability amounts to a delusion of rights… The public is afraid of people with psychiatric disabilities. Families are ashamed of them… Children taunt them… The degree to which people with mental illness are limited in major life activities is largely irrelevant to the uneasiness and fear the conditions engender in others.”
So let me ask you, media, and anybody else who fails to question mental illness discourse – why don’t you express the same level of reprobation – or outrage – when public figures slander the mentally ill as violence-prone “crazies” as you do when people refer to ethnic minorities as “nig#ers,” “chin#s” or “spi#s”?
Will you own up to your double standard? I doubt it. But I won’t stop writing about it, or trying my damndest to change it, until you do.
*While the majority of people with mental illness want – and are able to – work, less than 15 percent are able to obtain employment. People with psychiatric disability exerpeince far greater discrimination than those with physical disabilities; our unemployment rates are 3 – 5 times higher than the general population13.
1“Mental Health Myths and Facts.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/
2Entry for “Crazy, adj.,” accessed on the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.plsinfo.org:2048/view/Entry/44007?rskey=DNyHqc&result=2#eid
3See footnoe ii.
4Corrigan, P. & Kleinlein, P. (2005). The impact of mental illness stigma. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 11-44). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; Orovwuje, P.R. & Taylor, A.J.W. (2006). Mental health consumers, social justice and the historical antecedents of oppression. In, A.J.W. Taylor (Ed.), Justice as a basic human need (pp. 95-111). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
5Orovwuje, P.R. & Taylor, A.J.W. (2006). Mental health consumers, social justice and the historical antecedents of oppression. In, A.J.W. Taylor (Ed.), Justice as a basic human need (pp. 95-111). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
7 See Corrigan & Kleinlein (2005), above.
8See Foucault, M. (1988). Madness and Civilization. New York: Random House; and Watters, E. (2010). Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Free Press.
9Corrigan, P. (2005). Mental illness stigma as social injustice: Yet another dream to be achieved. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 315-320). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
10Whitley, R. & Berry, S. (2013). Trends in Newspaper Coverage of Mental Illness in Canada: 2005-2010. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Feb2013, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p107-112.
11 Orovwuje & Taylor (2006); and Phelan, J.C., Link, B., Stueve, A., & Pescosolido, B. (2000). Public conceptions of mental illness in 1950 and 1996: What is mental illness and is it to be feared? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 188-207.
12Stefan, S. (2000, Fall). Delusions of rights: Americans with psychiatric disabilities, employment discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Alabama Law Review, 52, 271-318. Stefan also drew on this study in her analysis: Parry, J.W. (2000, May/June). Employment Decisions Under the ADA Title I – Survey Update. Mental & Physical Disability Law Reporter, 24, 348-367.
13See, again, Corrigan & Kleinlein (2005).
other articles/research which informed this post include:
O’Brien, G. and Brown, M. (2009). Persons with mental illness and the ADA: Implications for the social work profession. Social Work in Mental Health, 7(5), 442-457.
Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R.O. (1999). Persons with psychiatric disabilities. In, Disability: A diversity model approach in human service practice (pp. 167-171). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Martin, J., Pescosolido, B., & Tuch, S. (2000). Of fear and loathing: The role of “disturbing behavior,” labels, and causal attributions in shaping public attitudes toward people with mental illness. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 208-223.