I have always been skeptical of the value of the stigma concept in advocating for the rights of people with mental illness. It seems to imply that a person with a mental illness is obvious to everyone and nothing could be further from the truth. The usual advocacy groups certainly jumped on it and it was later picked up by professional organizations. My basic problem with the entire argument is that nobody should know that you have a mental health problem anymore than people should know that I have asthma. It is a problem of medical confidentiality rather than a problem with stigma. Anyone who thinks that is not the case just needs to consider what prospective employers think about hiring people with back pain, asthma, or any pre-existing condition that potentially impacts their group health insurance coverage. Any confidential medical condition is potentially stigmatizing and it certainly is nobody else's business. If people want to disclose that information that is certainly up to them and as I have posted here in many cases it can be a useful public service. And I do realize that health insurance companies force you to disclose pre-existing conditions using various methods but that does not mean that your employer should know.
The other problem is that there has been broad and systematic discrimination against people with mental illness and addictions at all levels of government and the business community. These are the people who have access to protected medical information and make decisions about health care based on it. That discrimination occurs with full knowledge of a diagnosis and often a recommended treatment plan. Multiple posts here document that problem and yet nobody comes right out and attacks that issue. If anything social activism with a stigma focus seems to cast a wide discrimination net rather than focusing on the few people and agencies that can make a critical difference. It suggests that the general public is the problem and that educating the general public will solve the problem.
This morning a friend of mine posted this link on Facebook and asked me for my impressions of the argument that neuroscientific explanations potentially lead to more stigma. That is probably what has me fired up. If you are trained in science, you realize that there are internal politics but in general that is not the same as the politics of the barbarians at the gate. The problem is that all types of science from climate science to neuroscience gets co-opted and interpreted by people who don't know what they are talking about. I think that is illustrated by one of the summary points in this article:
"As this revolution gathers force, we need to be mindful that biogenetic explanations for mental health problems can have troubling implications for the people who suffer them."
I think it should be obvious that there will be "troubling implications" for anyone who is ignorant on either end of a "biogenetic explanation". Further, it is really impossible to separate allegedly biogenetic explanations from decades of conditioning by governments, businesses, and the media. Troubling implications start when you realize that your employer's health plan does not have coverage for mental illnesses or addictions and you have a family member that needs that insurance.
What are the take home points about stigma in all of this?
1. Businesses that discriminate against mental illness by rationing current services and destroying any infrastructure necessary to treat mental health are stigmatizing. The message is clearly that they can't be bothered to treat these problems seriously by offering much of anything beyond a crisis stay in a hospital and a 10-20 minute "med check" by a "provider or prescriber" in an outpatient clinic every 3 - 6 months. No research proven modalities to treat mental illness and a severe push to send people with addictions and serious mental illnesses to county detox, jail, or the street.
But even the businesses not involved can get into the act. Practically every local market has a business some who is offering "crazy deals." If you doubt it, Google "crazy deals" or the equivalent "insane deals" and see what you come up with. Don't forget to look at some of the images.
2. Governments that ration and destroy the mental health infrastructure and collude with rationing by businesses are stigmatizing. Examples include empowering insurance companies to decide how they can deconstruct the billing and services of mental health providers and clinics to their advantage (the arbitrary insurance company audit), empowering business to discount services, legitimizing utilization review and prior authorization (tools for arbitrary denials), and allowing for proprietary business guidelines to dictate who can receive treatment and who can not. What could be more stigmatizing than to have a business suggest that a person is not "dangerous" enough to be treated and use that as a basis for medical decision making? Why aren't there any rules about admitting only the "dangerous" myocardial infarctions and sending everybody else home?
3. Court systems that treat the mentally ill like they are criminals are stigmatizing. This includes practically all court systems because as any forensic psychiatrist will tell you, despite the myths about the so-called insanity defense - it is practically impossible for anyone to get off with that defense. There are significant numbers of people who are incarcerated for minor nonviolent crimes that were the product of mental illness. Ask yourself if it is more stigmatizing to have a confidential diagnosis of a mental illness or be listed in the paper as being incarcerated or having been convicted of a crime?
4. The press has a very poor track record in the area of stigma. It is well known that the press covers psychiatry more than other medical specialties and has a consistently negative view about the specialty. How would you feel if you had an illness that resulted in you being seen by a physician whose specialty is consistently portrayed negatively in the media. For the past two years the press has produced nonstop political arguments about a diagnostic manual that is practically little more than a guidebook for billing codes with many of the esoteric codes only of interest to researchers. One of the main arguments in those articles was that the diagnostic manual led to arbitrary diagnosis and treatment for the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry. For anyone with a serious mental illness, could there be a more stigmatizing argument?
5. The entertainment industry never hesitates to make a buck off of mental illness. The film Halloween is classic example of equating mental illness with an evil so unstoppable that the psychiatrist involved has to pack a .44 magnum. That same message has been carried forward in recent television shows. Some of the efforts in this area are so bad that it takes an incredible bias to justify the product as entertainment.
These are all much better examples than suggesting that science somehow stigmatizes people. The associated problem is the misunderstanding of science. We all understand that the media needs to sell stories and the truth about science is that it is a process and not the ultimate truth. Every story about new fads based on an experimental finding that will never be replicated in the absence of a discussion of scientific method is corrosive to the public's confidence in science. In this case using "chemical imbalance" as a scientific theory is about as ill informed as anyone could be about the neurobiology of mental illness or normal brain functioning. At that level this story is more about press induced stigma than anything that neuroscience or neurobiology has to say.
The lesson for today is that the brain is not a sack full of neurotransmitters that is balanced or unbalanced. If you believe that, you can either stay ignorant about the problem and talk about "chemical imbalance" as though it means something, educate yourself about neuroscience (there are many free sites on the Internet) or you can join any number of psychiatry bashing web sites that claim that psychiatrists believe there is a chemical imbalance. Your first neuroscience assignment is to read about Eric Kandel and why he got the Nobel Prize.
And where does conflict of interest enter into the stigma equation? In other words who benefits from mental health stigma as an operative social concept? Advocacy organizations certainly do. In many cases is it their raison d'être. Interestingly concern over stigma has prevented some advocacy organizations from dealing effectively with the issue of people with mental illness who are violent. They considered violence and aggression to be stigmatizing rather than a fact of some mental illnesses. Professional organizations like the American Psychiatric Association benefit in that it enhances their credibility with the advocacy organizations but any counterattacks on the forces that ration and deny mental health services have been weak and ineffectual. Those rationing entities including politicians, government agencies, pharmacy benefit managers and managed care companies benefit tremendously. After all they have added hundreds of billions of dollars to their bottom lines by basically denying or rationing treatment and in many cases denying that there is any problem at all.
Stigma rhetoric makes it seem like this is a problem inherent in our society with no better solution than an enlightened public. We will not be able to solve it until enough people are enlightened while the rationing schemes continue.
At that level you could say that stigma is a concept that can be spun for everyone, but let's agree that science has nothing to do with it.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Supplementary 1: I was asked by a reader to summarize the above post. Here it is:
There are societal wide biases (business, government, legal, entertainment, etc) that stigmatize the mentally ill. Some aspects of that process involve the distortion of science (e.g. "chemical imbalance theory").
Now what happens if I decide to run an experiment that asks people about how happy they would be if they had a biologically determined mental illness in that culture? Of course they would react strongly because:
a) They are from a culture that stigmatizes people with significant mental illness. They know how the various players would react if they found out that a person has a significant mental illness. Mental illness by itself does not produce a stigma. People are stigmatized by other people with biases and clear agendas.
b) They really don't know what the scientific implications are because they have been hearing about false theories or reading overt propaganda or they don't know enough about the process or implications of science.