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The Awful Stigma of Mental Illness

October 3, 2013
Human Brain

Human Brain

Between 70% and 90% of people who are looking for employment and who have been diagnosed with a mental illness do not find work! Let me rephrase this. The unemployment rate of people with diagnosed mental illness is close to insurmountable.

What is it about mental illness that frightens us so? Why would a boss hire someone with a physical disease (as long as they knew it was not contagious) but fear employing a person with Bipolar disorder or Schizophrenia?

Let’s imagine a piece of a conversation during an employment interview in which a qualified applicant for a customer service representative position is very straightforward and tells the human resource person they self-inject insulin due to having Type 1 diabetes. I think we can all correctly assume this would in no way negatively impact being considered for the job.

But what if that same applicant informed the human resource person that they were diagnosed schizophrenic and were on medication because they hear voices? So what is it about mental illness that we find so awful?


I have always believed that people fear more of what they cannot see than what they can see. The unknown is more frightening than the known is to most people. And mental illness is something that doesn’t show up on an x-ray. Although we are making significant breakthroughs in learning more about the way the brain works, for most of us, it is still ‘uncharted territory” and as such, much more likely to be feared.

But there is more to it than that. There also is a sense of pessimism involved or seeing the glass half empty. Since we don’t know much about the way the brain works, it stands to reason that we don’t know that much about the way it doesn’t work correctly either. This means we don’t understand the way disorders work. So why do people so frequently choose to think the worst? What reason do we have to believe if we hire the person with schizophrenia, that person will ‘go off’ rather than be extremely creative? What makes us focus on the negative aspects of mental illness rather than some of the other aspects of different brain functions?

Site of Navy Yard Shootings

It most certainly doesn’t help when a man goes on a killing rampage the way Aaron Alexis, the Washington DC Navy Yard killer, did last month and the news comes across about how he suffered from mental illness. Then that becomes the main focus of the news and people who are likely to hold negative views toward mental disorders feed off that. It is almost as if when something like this occurs, it can be used as proof by those who already stigmatize the mentally ill.

The popular mindset is that education is the only antidote to prejudice. I would like to say that I believe it works, but I know too many people who refuse to be confused by the facts because they already have their minds made up. For the time being, I am afraid mental illness stigmas are going to be around for a while and it will continue to be a seriously uphill battle for those effected by it.

Judy is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked extensively as a counselor with children, adolescents, couples and families. Judy’s professional experience in the mental health field along with her love of writing, provide insight into real-life experiences and relationships. Her fresh voice and down-to-earth approach to living a happier, more meaningful life are easy to understand and just as easy to start implementing right away for positive results!

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