The Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change – Stephen P. Hinshaw.

Following my previous research, I thought it would be important to delve a little deeper into what this stigma actually is. I think often it can be recognised it is there, but what does it actually mean with regards to mental illness? To learn more about it, I came across this insightful book.

Hinshaw begins by explaining how “Mental illness has been part of the human condition for as long as our species has existed…Yet emotional reactions to mental disorder are still dominated by fear, pity, and scorn; societal responses continue to be characterised by banishment, punishment and neglect.” (Hinshaw, 2007: ix). This immediately identifies how mental illness can affect anyone and has been doing ever since human existence therefore it is actually quite shocking to see how it still being regarded with such a stigma in 2015. This judgements of fear, pity and scorn are down to untrue, over-exaggerated representations of such illnesses which society find easier to believe and ‘latch on to’ rather than become educated about such a topic. Honestly, this is quite saddening as this point shows how anyone can be affected by mental illness and if a family member were to suffer, perceptions would soon change. This is why my project becomes so important so anyone can learn about it or support somebody without having to experience it themselves.

Hinshaw considers how “celebrities and authors now openly disclose their stories…Even those without celebrity status are more open and increasingly likely to admit that they see a therapist or take psychoactive medications…” (Hinshaw, 2007: ix). As people can often find themselves absorbed and interested in a celebrity’s world and lifestyle, it has a positive effect in their confidence of sharing a story about mental illness. It may not be the best way to raise awareness relying so much on celebrity status, but it is good to acknowledge how it is having a positive effect. Hinshaw also appreciates how ‘normal’ people have become more likely to speak out about their experiences which shows how communication is improving amongst society. However, Hinshaw also discusses how “despite greater awareness and communication, the plight of those with mental disorders continues to be precarious. Because mental disorder is often banished from mainstream discussion, the conditions and experiences of most people who live with mental illness are rendered invisible, making change efforts difficult to mount.”(Hinshaw, 2007: xiii). Hinshaw shares some really interesting facts in the book about how the treatment of those suffering with mental illness has changed over hundreds of years and appreciating how in the United States (in 2007, when the book was published) that the recognition and treatment of mental illness has improved yet the stigmatisation keeps on increasing. We are consistently absorbed my mainstream media and if discussion of the topic is avoided, the attitude never gets discussed, resolved or debated – we continue in this vicious cycle of people who are suffering not being able to speak out and get the help they need.

Relating to the previous point, Hinshaw highlights how “media portrayals of people with mental disorder continue to feature stereotypes and ridicule, equating mental disorder with incompetence and violence. These depictions shape the attitudes and emotional responses of the general public by permeating advertisements, newspaper articles, television and radio programmes, and films.” (Hinshaw, 2007: xiii). Again this draws upon my previous acknowledgement about how we are consistently absorbed by media, it is everywhere whether we like it or not and sometimes I believe that often we can easily accept everything it throws at us without consideration or reflection. These misrepresentations by the media act as our ‘go-to’ and often people can choose to believe these over reality – sometimes we can believe anything we read as we are so dependant on all the media information we receive. I think this again highlights how personal projects become so powerful because they are true representations to share very insightful stories. Whilst I think they may be harder to be accepted into society, I think they are so important with regards to challenging the representations we are used to.

Hinshaw has described brilliantly the terms of stigma and how it is created to aid my own understanding of its context within mental health. “Stigma refers to a global devaluation of certain individuals on the basis of some characteristic they possess, related to membership in a group that is disfavoured, devalued, or disgraced by the general society. Its connotations imply harsh moral judgements placed on those who are linked with the group in question.” (Hinshaw, 2007: 23). Stigma is created when judgement is placed on an action which doesn’t confirm to the norms of society. Once a certain is behaviour is interpreted in a way somebody finds uncomfortable or unsuitable, it is deemed unacceptable in society therefore creating this stigma against them. Similar to this, a point I found really interesting was “some of these words [mental, crazy, retarded] are among the first used by young children to discount and dismiss disliked peers, signalling that stigmatisation permeates our language throughout the lifespan.” (Hinshaw, 2007: xi). I had never considered how it could be contemplated that stigmatisation begins at a young age, but the use of words like these to define somebody they may not like is a sign of lack of education. Children won’t necessarily know what these words mean, they just know they have negative connotations. This misunderstanding of the meaning of the word, is exactly how stigma is created through mental health. When people do not have knowledge of particular mental health issues, it is easier to conform to the norm of it’s representation in society.

Hinshaw also helps break down the elements which create stigma.”Stigmatisation is viewed as a set of social processes (comparison, identification, devaluation) that lead to continuing denigration.” (Hinshaw, 2007: 24). When observing a particular behaviour, we compare it to what we know. If we identify this behaviour as something we are not used to, are intimated by or don’t understand (there is a huge list of reasons as to why we may not agree or accept a particular behaviour) then this is when it becomes rejected socially and these negative connotations become attached, creating the stigma. Comparison will never be something that can be changed, we will always judge ourselves against other people in so many different elements of life. Similarly, we will always identify different behaviour from our own but by educating reasons for these certain behaviours associated with mental health, it will end the final social process of devaluation.

Hinshaw made a point of how “the pain engendered by mental illness is searing enough, but the devastation of being invisible, shameful, and toxic can make the situation practically unlivable.”(Hinshaw, 2007: xi). I previously picked up on the same point in the Social Perspectives in Mental Health by Jerry Tew of how society’s responses through stigma and discrimination are what makes mental health issues even harder to deal with. As I previously recognised, this point shows just how damaging stigma can be and highlight why it is so important to help put an end to this and create a support network rather than making the problem bigger.

Finally, Hinshaw recognises it isn’t just those who suffer with mental illness who are attached to the stigma. “It therefore goes beyond the presence of negative attitudes or prejudices per se…Stigma casts a long shadow.” (Hinshaw, 2007: 24). The stigma can extend to those associated with the stigmatised groups such as family members, showing the problem grows even further. This ‘casting of a long shadow’ suggests leaving not only the sufferer but their support network into the dark as well with little help. Often family of those who suffer with mental illness can feel like they have failed this person or feel useless so it is important to provide them with help as well as the sufferer rather than adding to the problem again.

This book really helped my understanding of what the stigma attached to mental health actually is and how it is created. It is more crippling than people realise, making the battle with mental illness even harder. By understanding how the stigma is created, it can be made easier to corrupt that chain of social processes and begin associated ‘different’ behaviour as normality. After reading this, I am even more passionate about making my piece of work to help contribute to making this ‘new’ understanding of mental health. It is so important to do this to help myself, others, those who are not so aware of mental illnesses and those supporting people who are suffering.

Hinshaw, S. (2007) The Mark Of Shame: Stigma Of Mental Illness And An Agenda For Change.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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~ by victoriasimkissphotography on January 18, 2015.

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