Fighting mental illness often involves battling stigma

David Riley

If Cindy had a heart ailment, a doctor might have sat her down and walked her through her options for treatment.

Battling mental illness, she says she was locked in a state hospital and told by a staff member she would be lucky if she ever got out.

If she broke a bone, Cindy might have gotten a cast, crutches and a little patience at home.

Grappling with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse, her husband said she was lazy and her treatment was just "a vacation."

For decades, most health professionals have accepted that mental illnesses are legitimate, serious medical problems. But for many who suffer from them, they often remain a source of shame and ridicule, and for the public, a cause for fear, suspicion or misunderstanding.

"It's just slow for people to realize it's a real illness," said Iris Carroll, director of Programs for People, a Framingham, Mass., agency that helps people to recover from mental illness and succeed. "I see it definitely changing, but not fast enough."

Four clients at Programs for People, who agreed to speak with the Daily News without giving their full names, say stigma against the mentally ill is alive and well in many aspects of their lives.

Mark, who was hit by a truck in December, says he believes his diagnosis with mental illness led a doctor not to take his wishes seriously and forgo surgery he requested on his badly broken leg.

"I didn't have anybody to sign or advocate for me," Mark said.

For Melissa, her struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress cost her ties with most of her family and wreaked havoc with jobs.

"I feel like people don't understand," Melissa said. "I'm labeled like you should get it, or you should have known better, so snap out of it."

Cindy said she was called a "nutcase" when she called her son's school to iron out a problem with a teacher. She said she encountered bias within the mental health system itself, where her own goals often seemed an afterthought to some of the people treating her.

"We want guidance," said Cindy, "but we also want a voice."

Bill found understanding from some bosses, but was fired by a manager who found out about his battle with depression. When a coworker learned he had been hospitalized, he told Bill he always looked "twilighted."

Research shows these are not isolated stories. A study published online this month in the Social Science and Medicine journal found Americans increasingly believe there are medical and genetic explanations for mental illnesses.

Yet depending on the type of illness, people were no more tolerant toward the people with these ailments than they were 10 years ago, the study said.

A new Canadian survey found only half of respondents would tell friends or coworkers if a family member was diagnosed with a mental illness, compared to 72 percent for cancer. More than a quarter said they would fear being around a person with a mental disorder, despite the fact that most are not dangerous, and 46 percent said people use mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior.

In the U.S., barriers to employment keep an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of people with mental illnesses out of the workplace, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

This is despite the fact that one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, says the National Institute for Mental Health. Of those with mental illnesses, nearly half suffer from two or more disorders, according to the institute.

There are signs that stigma is changing. Pending federal legislation aims to require more equitable coverage in health plans for treatment of mental illness. Studies show more people are seeking and getting treatment, and all those interviewed at Programs for People described great progress.

"I've grown stronger," Melissa said. "I'm trying to rebuild my life."

They are speaking out against the barriers they have faced.

"I'd like people to know we're real, and we're not different from you or anybody else in the world," Melissa said. "We're equal, and we have a right to be here and not be stigmatized."

MetroWest Daily News writer David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or