The Stigmatization of Mental Illness: The Ramifications of Inadequate Treatment and Societal Disregard for the Mentally Ill in the United States

The extent to which the United States provides treatment for the mentally ill has been a contentious issue. The appalling lack of care for the mentally ill throughout American history has had a lasting impact on the way in which mental health is regarded today. It is imperative that one knows the terminology associated with mental health in order to understand the programs and treatments for mental illnesses in the United States. According to the DSM-IV (1994), a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association which provides a common criteria and standard for classifying mental disorders, a mental illness is “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern… [that] occurs in an individual that is associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom” (p. xxxi).Despite the serious characterization of mental illness, the United States still neglects the importance of treating mental illness and perceives mental illness as minor and irrelevant. Additionally, American society has created a conception that physical illnesses are more critical and significant than mental illnesses; this conception of physical illnesses versus mental illnesses has only exacerbated the predicament of mental illness in America. Due to the historical disregard to the severity of mental illness compared to physical illness, there is a lack of progression of treatments for mental illnesses. The continued effects of this devaluation of individuals with mental illness has led to an increase in inadequate hospitalization, incarceration, and homelessness within the mentally ill community of the United States.

Throughout history, there has been a negative perception of mental illness in society. Starting as early as 6500 BCE, mental illnesses were viewed as supernatural; individuals affected with mental illness were seen as “possessed by evil or demonic spirits, displeasure of gods, eclipses, planetary gravitation, curses, and sin” (Farreras, n.d., para. 2). Other theories exist, such as somatogenic theories, which are theories relating to development from physical and bodily origins. These theories have identified mental illnesses as “disturbances in physical functioning resulting from either illness, genetic inheritance, or brain damage or inbalance,” (Farreras, n.d., para. 2). These theories of mental illness have recurred constantly throughout history, whether it be the late Middle Ages or prehistoric times.In the 16th century, the opinion of mental illnesses transitioned and individuals with mental illness were seen as animals who, according to Farreras (n.d.), did not have the ability to reason, control themselves and their violence, and did not have the same reaction to pain and temperature. It was believed that those who were “insane” could live in miserable conditions without any form of discomfort; mentally ill patients were then forced to live in horrid conditions because their actions were analogous with “animal” behavior. By the 18th century, people began to protest worldwide over the mistreatment of people with mental illness; a social awakening occurred around the late 18th century and beginning 19th century because the opinions of mental illness became slightly more humane. The whole world, including the United States, advocated and instigated moral treatment where those being treated were treated humanitarianly in ways that would conform to their needs. This idea had to be taken away in the United States in the latter 19th century once asylums became overcrowded and the inability to meet the needs of each individual patient digressed due to financial constraints and lack of resources. The concept of mental illnesses being a weakness and a burden arose again as state hospitals were introduced in the 20th century as they too became exceedingly overcrowded and overused (Farreras, n.d.). Today, the views of mental illnesses continue to worsen due to the intricacy in treating individuals with mental illness. Additionally, many adult men with depression and other mental illness refuse to seek treatment because they think having an illness is a sign of weakness. For example, many employees would rather quit their jobs to avoid the stigma of taking medical leave for their illness (Bussing, 2013).Mentally ill individuals are considered flawed and inadequate due to the societal devaluation of mental illness.

In the United States, there has been a stigmatization of mental illness compared to physical illness. It is commonly believed that physical illnesses are significantly more important than mental illnesses due to physical illnesses being visible whereas mental illnesses are internal. Many who are not affected with mental illness believe illnesses such as depression and anxiety are things that people can control. Unfortunately, the reality is that having a mental illness is not in one’s control just like having a physical illness, such as the flu, isn’t in one’s control. There is such a stigma around mental illness because people are uninformed and unaware of what a mental illness is and how it truly affects someone who is diagnosed. If society were to view physical illnesses like they do mental illness, then questions such as, “Have you tried to just not have the flu?”and “I know that you have food poisoning and all, but you have to at least make an effort” would arise. When these types of statements form around mental illness, it seems very normal, yet when it comes around to physical illness, it automatically seems bizarre. This is all extremely unsettling considering that according to the World Health Organization (2001), one in four people in the world have been affected by some form of mental illness, yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015), only 25% of adults with mental illness believe that others are sympathetic and caring towards people diagnosed with a mental illness. The way that families, work places, and the media respond to mental illness only adds to the stigma of mental illness. According to Hamilton (2011), many families get too stressed out and kick out members of their family and those individuals end up homeless. One of the primary reasons that there is such a stigmatization around mental illness is due to the media. Unless someone does in depth research or is a medical or psychology student, most peoples’ knowledge of mental illness comes from the media. Media sources, including news and entertainment, often depict mentally ill individuals as violent, physically deformed, and childish or silly. Unfortunately, the media rarely mentions the reality of the pain individuals with mental illness feel and how serious mental disorders really are. The media is often quick to blame mentally ill individuals for crimes and shootings even though, “the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population” (Mental Health Myths and Facts, n.d.).

This societal devaluation of mental illness only worsens outlets offered for individuals with mental illness.

Currently, the treatments for mental illness are more humane than those in the 1800’s. The treatments offered now include psychotherapy, which is a therapeutic treatment given by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Medication offered now to treat mental illness has a much stronger chance of effectiveness, and there is an array of many different medications that can be used to help patients. Inpatient hospitalization is also offered for individuals who seek help in an environment where they are under watch and can be monitored (Hardy, 2014). Electroconvulsive therapy, outpatient therapy, hypnotherapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation are a few other treatments offered. Although the treatments offered are fairly adequate, the United States cares more to treat those who have money as opposed to those who truly need it (Davies, 2010). Only 40% of adults with mental illness are truly able to receive help because of this (Duckworth, 2013). As opposed to adding new facilities, due to Medicare and Medicaid laws, hospital beds get emptied too fast which leaves very sick patients with nowhere to go (Szabo, 2014). Additionally, states cut $5 billion dollars from mental health services from 2009 to 2012. They also lessened the amount of psychiatric hospital beds by 10% (Szabo, 2014). It is unfortunate that even now in 2016, individuals are not able to receive proper care for their illness.

Due to these constant facility shutdowns and overpriced treatments, there exists a “Bermuda Triangle-like void” in which the mentally ill ultimately end up in three places- hospitals, jails, and the streets due to the neglect they receive (Lamberti, Weisman, Shwarzkopf, Price, Ashton, Trompeter, 2001). Unfortunately, the hospitals that individuals end up in are often too crowded and have very little resources to adequately treat patients who need full time care and attention. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, federal funding for state hospitals continues to lessen and peoples’ stays in mental health facilities shorten when they in fact, still need help (2011). These helpless individuals then either end back up in an institution, jails, the streets, or the morgue. Often times, these abandoned patients resort to crime or are falsely accused of crime. Instead of offering treatments, they are incarcerated and when they finish their sentence no help is offered as they each become ticking time bombs waiting to end back up in prison. The goal of this practice is to save money by not spending money on treatments (Szabo, 2014). This practice is dysfunctional because the United States ultimately spends more attempting to incarcerate mentally ill individuals than treating them in the first place. Additionally, there is the moral argument that it is incredibly unfair and unjust to ignore and avoid an individual who needs help by throwing them in prison to rot. Unfortunately, the mentally ill are also more likely to receive longer terms in prison than non-mentally ill.According to Steinberg, Millls, and Romano, the average sentence length for robbery for someone with mental illness is approximately 175 months, whereas for a non-mentally ill individual it is approximately 140 months. Furthermore, if a mentally ill individual is convicted once, they are more likely to be sentenced longer than others for the same crimes. This horrid cycle of release and back to prison is tragically unavoidable without proper treatment being available. Many individuals with some form of mental illness end up homeless. 20 to 25% of the United States’ homeless population suffers from a mental illness (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration n.d.). Moreover, in a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (2008), out of 25 cities, mental illness was the third largest cause of homelessness and for homeless families, mental illness was one of the top three causes of homelessness according to 12% of cities. The Bermuda Triangle void is truly upsetting and unfortunate; it continues as the United States proceeds to provide inadequate attention to those with mental illness.

Until the stigmatization of mental illness ceases, the magnitude of people suffering from mental illnesses will increase as individuals will feel more alone and uncared for as ever before. It is critical that mental illness be taken seriously in order to ensure the best care for the citizens of the United States. Furthermore, treatments for the mentally ill must improve drastically and quickly or else the United States will see a continuous expansion in the numbers of mentally ill who are incarcerated and homeless which has terrifying implications for the country at large. The hospitalization offered for mentally ill individuals must also advance and become more adequate and available. It is imperative for society to recognize that having a mental illness isn’t a crime; it is a debilitation that must be medically treated. Mental health care must be offered in order to ensure healthier individuals resulting in healthier communities, which makes for a happier country overall. The lack of assistance to the mentally ill has led to a cycle that only exacerbates and stigmatizes the issue rather than fixes it; as well as unfairly and often unlawfully discriminates. The government must take action in equating the concern for mental illness with physical illness and the United States as a whole must work together to ensure a bright future for every individual no matter their background.


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