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Town Hall puts a human face on stigma and mental illness

Tue, Nov 12, 2013

Professor Patrick Corrigan, distinguished professor of psychology at IIT, pointed out that media perpetuate the stereotype that people with mental illness are "homicidal maniacs."  (Access Living photo)

Professor Patrick Corrigan, distinguished professor of psychology at IIT, pointed out that media perpetuate the stereotype that people with mental illness are “homicidal maniacs.” (Access Living photo)

In December 2012, a young man who was described by his brother as “somewhat autistic” shot 20 students and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Mental Illness was a significant piece of the media coverage that followed the shooting. The coverage often implied a connection between violence and mental illness.

Reporting on mental illness in the wake of shootings in Connecticut and in the movie theater in Denver, Colorado, many in the media have failed to identify the fact that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crimes. Some outlets make broad generalizations connecting crime and mental illness.

The impact of the coverage resonated onstage during the 2013 Fillet of Solo Festival in Chicago. At the tail end of a show at the Lifeline Theater, a performance artist recited a wish list, including a line to the effect of, “I wish that the mentally ill would stop shooting people.” Later in 2013, inaccurate generalizations about mental illness and violence continued. Speaking of the man who kidnapped, raped and held captive three women in Cleveland, NBC Anchor Brian Williams said Ariel Castro was “the face of mental illness,” implying that all people with mental illness are violent and dangerous.

Assuming a connection between mental illness and violence is not new. According to Professor Patrick Corrigan, the distinguished professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a 1996 study revealed that in a room full of people, 40 percent of the people in that room believe that people with mental illness with whom they share the room are dangerous. Ten years later, the stigma remained. A 2006 study found the number still to be at 40 percent.

Corrigan delivered his points on September 26 during a Town Hall Meeting on the issue of Mental Health and Stigma. Hosted and organized by Access Living, more than 140 people attended the meeting, which also featured a panel of five professionals who have all navigated mental illness and the stigma that comes with it.

Using newspaper clippings, movie posters, and advertisements, Corrigan made the point that the media, entertainment, and the sales industry all perpetuate the stereotype that people with mental illness are “are homicidal maniacs.” The consequences of these stereotypes are found in the lives of individuals with mental illness who must confront the stigma produced by the stereotypes. Panelist Fred Friedman (see cover story, Page 12), an attorney, mental illness survivor, and mental health advocate, asserted people with mental illness get better, but because stigma is so strong, they don’t tell anyone. As a result, “for too many of us, we have been taught not to have hope… we have taken that stigma inside.”

Janice Parker works with Professor Corrigan at IIT. With a history of depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder, Parker said stigma was particularly difficult in her community. She said that in the African American Community, “you’re not supposed to be sad, tired…women are supposed to buck up. Everyone has it hard.”

Allison Gaiter attempted suicide when she was 10 years old. Far from receiving support from her community, after the suicide attempt she was introduced by one sibling as the “crazy sister,” and was teased by neighbors. Despite the stigma they suffered, each panelist navigated mental illness to recovery and success.

According to Corrigan, sharing stories about recovery and mental illness is the most important way to address stigma. Rather than diminish stigma, medical research, changing the way we talk about mental illness, and advocacy all highlight the differences between people with mental illness and others. These differences reinforce stigma. Corrigan emphasized that the key is making a human connection. All resources should be invested “in face-to-face contact where people with lived experiences share their story.” Corrigan asserted that across 72 different studies, 60 researchers show that contact is most effective to combat stigma.

Those studies underscore why Access Living hosted the Town Hall. By bringing people together to present information, ask questions, and share stories about mental illness, recovery, and success, the town hall helped put a human face on psychiatric disabilities. It’s the human face that will go a long way to combat stigma.

Gary Arnold is the public relations coordinator for Access Living, a local disability rights and service organization. He publishes a blog called “Common Ground,” for which he writes about Little People of America, dwarfism and disability. He is also a contributor to the Huffington Post.

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