Having witnessed the devastating impact of stigma on patients with mental illness throughout my psychiatric career, I am fed up and disgusted with this malevolent scourge.
I regard the stigma that engulfs neuropsychiatric disorders as a malignancy that mutilates patients’ souls and hastens their mortality.
Stigma is hate speech
How would you feel if you had a serious medical illness, a disabling brain disorder such as schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety, and people refer to you with pejorative and insulting terms such as crazy, deranged, lunatic, unhinged, nutty, insane, wacky, berserk, cuckoo, bonkers, flaky, screwball, or unglued? This is hate speech generated by stigma against people with mental illness. Individuals with heart disease, cancer, or diabetes never get called such disgraceful and stigmatizing terms that shame, stain, besmirch, and scar them, which happens daily to persons with psychiatric brain disorders.
The damage and harm of the discriminatory stigma on our patients is multifaceted. It is painful, detrimental, pernicious, and deleterious. It is corrosive to their spirits, crippling to their self-image, and subversive to their self-confidence. Hate speech is not simply words, but a menacing weapon that assaults the core humanity of medically ill psychiatric patients.
Although hate speech is punishable by law, there are rarely any legal actions against those who hurl hate speech at psychiatric patients every day. Society has institutionalized the stigma of mental illness and takes it in stride instead of recognizing it as an illegal, harmful act.
Long before the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, 43% of the population had been shown to experience a diagnosable psychiatric disorder over the course of their life.1 Thus, tens of millions of people are burdened by stigma and the hate speech associated with it. This is directly related to massive ignorance about mental illness being the result of a neurobiological condition due to either genetic or intrauterine adverse events that disrupt brain development. Delusions and hallucinations are symptoms of a malfunctioning brain, depression is not a sign of personal weakness, anxiety is the most prevalent mental disorder in the world, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is not odd behavior but the result of dysfunction of neural circuits. Correcting public misperceptions about psychiatric brain disorders can mitigate stigma, but it has yet to happen.
Stigma is a hate crime
Stigma can accelerate physical death and premature mortality. Many studies have confirmed that persons with schizophrenia do not receive basic primary care treatments for the life-shortening medical conditions that often afflict them, such as diabetes, dyslipidemia, and hypertension.2 Stigma is responsible for a significant disparity of medical3-5 and intensive care6 among individuals with mental illness compared to the general population. It’s no wonder most psychiatric disorders are associated with accelerated mortality.7 A recent study during the pandemic by Balasuriya et al8 reported that patients with depression had poor access to care. Stigma interferes with or delays necessary medical care, leading to clinical deterioration and unnecessary, preventable death. Stigma shortens life and is a hate crime.
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