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Continuing The Stigma Of Mental Illness

| 02.12.2017 |

In the three weeks since Donald Trump became president, there appears to be a new shtick among high-profile individuals that bitterly opposed his political ascension: loud and careless talk that insists the new president is mentally ill.


Among the more astonishing examples of this talking point involve New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who went on Twitter to insist President Trump was “obviously mentally ill the moment he took office.” Eliot Cohen, a senior official in George W. Bush’s State Department and an advisor to Mitt Romney’s disastrous 2012 presidential campaign, insisted that “I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.” Political pundit Andrew Sullivan claimed in a New York Magazine essay that “there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health.”


Furthermore, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) insisted that several of his Republican colleagues in the Senate revealed their concerns to him about the president’ mental health. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) demanded that the president get psychiatric evaluations. And comedian Bill Maher eschewed his gag writers to bluntly and humorlessly claim that President Trump “is mentally ill.”


Of course, none of these men have any educational or occupational experience in mental health science, and each has a very obvious professional goal to fulfill by tearing down a presidency that is less than a month old. And while it is easy to dismiss these comments as evidence of an increasingly corrosive political environment, these statements also betray a horrible reality: it is still acceptable to stigmatize mental illness.


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately one in five American adults—43.8 million, or 18.5 percent of the total population—experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately one in 25 American adults—10 million, or 4.2 percent of the total population—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. And in 2014, just over half (50.6 percent) of children ages eight to 15 received mental health services.


From a business perspective, the costs of mental illness are staggering: NAMI reported that serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. From an emotional perspective, the costs of mental illness are a tragedy of epic proportions: more than 90 percent of children who committed suicide were diagnosed with a mental health condition, while each day an estimated 18 to 22 veterans with mental health disorders kill themselves.


In December 1999, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher released a report that stated one of the single greatest barriers to addressing mental health issues was stigma. Fifteen years later, Dr. Michael Friedman, one of the most prominent thought leaders in clinical psychology, wrote an essay for Psychology Today that found little evidence that the stigma had vanished.


“Research suggests that the majority of people hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness,” Dr. Friedman wrote. “From a young age, children will refer to others as ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’; these terms are used commonly throughout adulthood as well. Often the negative stereotypes involve perceptions that people with mental illness are dangerous. This perception is fueled by media stories that paint violent perpetrators as ‘mentally ill’ without providing the context of the broad spectrum of mental illness. This bias is not limited to people who are either uninformed or disconnected from people with mental illness; in fact, health care providers and even some mental health professionals hold these very same stereotypes. These negative attitudes often manifest as social distancing with respect to people with mental illness. In particular, when people feel that an individual with mental illness is dangerous, that results in fear and increased social distance.”


Some critics of President Trump defend the stigmatizing name-calling aimed at him by claiming similar words were used against Hillary Clinton by political operatives in the 2016 presidential campaign. That must be the single stupidest justification for perpetuating the stigmatizing of mental illness. Calling any person “mentally ill” because you disagree with their politics or dislike their public persona is nothing short of emetic. There are too many other ways to conduct a political debate without offering such a callous disrespect for those who are suffering through mental health crises.


Over the years, American society has seen significant attitudinal changes towards people with physical and developmental disabilities, and these individuals are welcomed into educational, professional and social settings in a manner that was unthinkable a generation or two ago. People dealing with mental health issues are deserving of the same respect.


All Americans have the right to question the Trump Administration’s policies and to call out whatever perceived inconsistencies or excesses this presidency may generate. But to blithely recycle the worst possible stereotypes concerning mental health in order to land a zinger at the president only perpetuates the lethal stigma associated with this illness. Ultimately, everybody loses.


Phil Hall is publisher and editor of Business-Superstar.com.