The Stigma of Being a Mental Health Patient
By: Beth McHugh 2008
As if it isn’t bad enough to be besieged by depression, bipolar disorder or any number of conditions that may land you in a medical facility for a period of time, there is the added stigma you as a patient may receive from family members, neighbors, acquaintances, even your work colleagues.
While the majority of hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from mental and emotional complaints, the topic is still generally not talked about and many people are reluctant to admit to suffering from a mental disorder of some description. However, when the relevant condition deteriorates such that the sufferer is best cared for and stabilized in a mental health facility, the stigma raises its ugly head yet again.
This is unfortunate because, as logic would degree, the time when a person most needs support and empathy is when they are at their most ill. This is the case with any illness. However, during my time as a therapist I have heard some of the most unbelievably callous and thoughtless remarks passed by the relatives and friends of the patient.
I have also heard and seen first hand some very poor treatment of patients by the staff themselves, but that is another story for another blog. Today we will hear the experience of Jennifer, whose family treatment of her was nothing short of appalling.
Jennifer was sexually assaulted by a well respected CEO of a major corporation. She expected that no-one in the department would support her, a junior staff member, over the money-making machine that this senior staff member represented, and she was right. This she felt was unfair, and yet she also understood it and accepted it.
What she couldn’t understand was the treatment by her parents. When she offered them a book outlining the causes and experiences of a person suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was Jennifer’s diagnosis, her father replied that “he knew all about it and didn’t need to read that sort of thing.” Her mother accepted the book but after several weeks Jennifer questioned her about how she was finding it. “Oh, you know reading always gives me a headache,” her mother declared. And that was the end of the support she received from her parents. Through therapy, Jennifer now realizes that her parents didn’t have the personal resources to deal with either her assault or her resultant illness. But I have to agree with her that that truth is cold comfort for Jennifer.
During the course of the inquiry into the assault, Jennifer’s mental health declined and she required a trip into hospital. This stay included Christmas Day. Her mother-in-law declined to visit and her sister-in-law stated that she couldn’t “bear to be around hospitals,” even though Jennifer knew that the former had often visited hospitals. The problem here was that it was a mental hospital.
Although there is room for much improvement in many of our mental health facilities, the same is true of so-called “normal” hospitals. However, due to Hollywood stereotyping, there are many misconceptions about what goes on inside such a facility. Although patients on suicide watch are closely watched and there may be many difficulties with patient compliance among these clients, there is no need to be afraid of visiting your friend in hospital. In fact, you are just what they need!
When questioned, Jennifer’s family and others like them believed they were going to witness unpleasant scenes if they made a visit. Perhaps people rocking in the corner, being incontinent, speaking gibberish, who knows! None of this is the case. A visitor would be hard pressed to distinguish the psychiatric ward from the medical ward in a mixed-discipline hospital, except for perhaps the absence of drips and machines that go “ping”.
We will continue to look at the stigmatization of mental patients in