Mental Health Stigma

It’s the time of year when Haunted Houses do their best to frighten their visitors. People seem to enjoy a boost of adrenaline and will be disappointed if they walk away without being spooked. However, one amusement park went too far and showed poor taste in their choice of scary themes.

Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in California utilized virtual reality to move visitors through a mental institution. People are strapped into chairs as if being admitted to a hospital. The attraction was originally named Fear VR 5150 (Virtual Reality). 5150 refers to a California mental institution state code for an inpatient resident who is considered a danger to themselves or others. After the park’s opening, mental health advocates voiced their objection to this portrayal of mental illness. “Mental illness is not for entertainment, and the amusement park contributes to the stigma against people who suffer from mental illnesses. Exploitation and stigmatization of those who are afflicted is unacceptable.” In response to the numerous complaints, Knott’s Berry Farm closed the attraction. Yet, after its closing, thousands of people signed a petition to re-open the ride.

One in five Americans live with a mental health condition and each of them has their own story, path and journey. People with mental illness are sometimes tormented by something beyond their control, through no fault of their own. I’d like to believe that most people wouldn’t stigmatize people who experience depression, anxiety or a host of other mental illnesses. Yet three out of four people with a mental illness report that they have experienced social stigma and discrimination. Stigmas can cause feelings of shame, poor social support, isolation, low self-esteem and a reluctance to seek help.

Some people admit having stigmatizing beliefs toward the mentally ill. For example, they may view the person who suffers mental illness as manipulative, can’t be trusted, may be violent, unpredictable and should be pitied. Some people are fearful of the sufferer, avoid them and underestimate their abilities.

The mentally ill deserve our understanding, compassion and support. So what can we do to challenge this stigma? Get to know people who suffer from mental illness. Educate ourselves and others about mental health and treatment. Offer the same support to someone who is mentally unwell, as you would if they were physically ill. Talk openly about your own experiences of mental illness and share your stories of treatment that was helpful. And speak up when others reinforce negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, these steps may not be enough. “People tend to hold their negative beliefs about mental health problems regardless of their age, regardless of what knowledge they have of mental health problems, and regardless of whether they know someone who has a mental health problem. The fact that such negative attitudes appear to be so entrenched suggest that campaigns to change these beliefs will have to be multifaceted, will have to do more than just impart knowledge about mental health problems, and will need to challenge existing negative stereotypes especially as they are portrayed in the general media.” (Pinfold, Toulmin, Thornicroft, Huxley et al., 2003)

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) encourages individuals, companies, and organizations to take the StigmaFree pledge to learn more about mental illness, to see a person for who they are and take action on mental health issues at nami.org. We need to push for better legislation and policies to improve lives for everyone. Take the pledge now.

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