Stigma of Having A Mental Illness

A Primer on Depression and Bipolar Disorder


G. Stigma of Having A Mental Illness

At the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) National Meeting in Boulder in the summer of 1988, a woman psychiatrist (whose name I don't remember) from UCLA reported about her survey of several thousand people in southern California on the level of stigma they attached to a list of serious illnesses. She asked, in effect, "Of the following illnesses, which do you consider to be the worst to have?''.

The long list included such things as mental retardation, cancer, epilepsy, venereal disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, etc., etc. And mental illness. The result was interesting: mental illness was chosen worst by a large margin. [At the time I couldn't help joking "It's nice to be number one at something, but this is ridiculous!" even though the joke was partly on me.]

Why is there a huge stigma of having a mental illness? Maybe because people fear the loss of their mind the most. Read more.It is perhaps easy to understand why people should feel this way. For one thing, most people know that mental illness is very serious -- perhaps totally incapacitating -- but don't have any idea of what causes it, or what it is like. They fear it: they fear the "loss of their mind", and they fear "being locked up in a mental hospital" presumably with lots of other "crazy" people. In addition, most people conceive someone who is mentally ill to be disruptive, irrational, violent, and dangerous. In reality, only a very tiny percentage of victims of mental illness (for example people with extreme mania) ever act that way; I suspect that this common, but badly erroneous, picture of the mentally ill comes directly from television and movies where it is the norm.

From all I have written above, it should be obvious that such deep prejudice and stigmatization is totally unwarranted, particularly for the mood disorders. In fact, there are many famous people in history and present-day life, who suffered (or suffer) depression or bipolar disorder. People like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Vincent van Gogh, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Patty Duke, Ludwig Beethoven, Wolfgang Mozart, Gioacchino Rossini, George Frederick Handel, .... the list goes on and on. People with tremendous talent, intelligence, creativity, sensitivity, and leadership abilities.

Indeed studies strongly suggest that many of the 19th and 20th century poets and writers in English were/are depressive or manic-depressive. I am not saying these people had special abilities because they were ill, but that they managed to release their creativity despite their illness. I list them, both to provide hope for victims, and to provide clear evidence that mentally ill people do not always fit the fearsome picture described in the preceding paragraph.

Indeed, on the issue of creativity by normal minds, for Mozart, one has Haydn; for van Gogh, one has Monet; for Beethoven, one has Brahms; for Handel, one has Bach; and so on. So the old myth that "genius goes with insanity" is just that: a myth!

Teddy Roosevelt is an interesting case; from the historical record he appears to have been hypomanic for most or all of his life. But he can be counterbalanced by Franklin Roosevelt. [And there is a humorous, and apparently true anecdote about him: One day, he was late for his Cabinet meeting -- he was always early and waiting impatiently to get the meeting going. He entered, sat in his chair at the head of the table, removed his glasses, and sighed. Then he looked around the table and said tiredly "Gentlemen, I can run this country, or I can run Alice (his daughter); but I can't run both". Alice was more than the metaphorical handful for her father. But Teddy found the solution: he promoted a marriage between Alice and his Secretary of State, Henry Longworth. And in later life, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the queen of Washington society. To not visit her in response to her invitation was permanent social suicide in Washington.]

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 2). Stigma of Having A Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: March 31, 2017

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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