Overcoming the stigma of mental illness

Nearly all Georgians agree that mental health treatment can help people lead normal lives. But just 58 percent say people are caring and sympathetic to those with mental illness.

And adults with symptoms of mental illness are even less likely to agree that people are caring and sympathetic.

Georgians’ attitudes toward mental illness are similar to those felt by people nationwide, according to a new CDC study released Friday at the 28th annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, held at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

About 1 in 4 American adults has a mental disorder in any given year.

But a major barrier to successful treatment, obtaining services and social inclusion is the stigma of mental illness –- the negative attitudes and beliefs that prompt people to reject, avoid and discriminate against those with the condition.

Overcoming this stigma was the theme of the Carter Center symposium.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter opened the meeting Thursday by noting that the stigmatizing of the mentally ill is a barrier to their housing and employment and wellness. Being included socially “is so important as an antidote to stigma,’’ she said.

She spoke Friday of the decades she has spent fighting the negative social attitudes surrounding mental illness. “Stigma is lifting a little bit [but] we have a long way to go,’’ she said.

Elyn Saks speaks to a Carter Center audience. Courtesy of the Carter Center/Paige Rohe

Several speakers at the symposium described their own fight against mental illness and the stigma that often comes with it. They included Elyn Saks, an attorney and professor at the University of Southern California’s law school.

Bouts with schizophrenia led Saks to drop out of law school and be hospitalized. Saks said she was given prognoses of “very poor’’ and ‘‘grave,’’ and she described the illness as ‘‘a nightmare while you’re awake.’’

“Stigma keeps people from getting care,’’ Saks said. She pointed out that people going into the hospital for physical illnesses are sent flowers, but not so for those hospitalized with mental illness.

Saks, though, eventually returned to law school, graduated, and is now director of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics. She said she benefits from the help of her husband, friends, medication, and a good work environment. “My illness no longer defines me,’’ she said.

Conference speakers said that in order to combat the stigma that’s placed on many sufferers, people with mental illness should talk about it publicly.

“People managing mental illness successfully should be talking openly about [that] experience,’’ said Gretchen Grappone, a clinical social worker in New Hampshire who overcame a severe depression.

Saks noted how the stigmatizing of people with cancer has largely disappeared in recent decades.

Graham Thornicroft, a professor of psychiatry at King’s College in London, said an anti-stigma campaign in England has been successful in changing attitudes about mental illness.

Famous individuals’ accounts of their personal experience with mental illness have also helped educate the public.

These individuals include actress Glenn Close, who has seen battles with mental illness within her family, and tennis star Serena Williams, who recently discussed her fight against depression.

The 2001 movie “A Beautiful Mind,’’ about Nobel Prize-winning mathematician-economist John Nash and his long battle with schizophrenia, also helped public awareness, Saks said.

The stigma can also be lessened through access to supported housing and employment and health services for people with mental illness, conference speakers said.

“Work is the key to my wellness and recovery,’’ said Peggy Swarbrick, director of the Collaborative Support Programs of the New Jersey Institute for Wellness and Recovery Initiatives, who was herself hospitalized with mental illness years ago.

“It’s nice to be wanted,’’ she said. “Employment can really help [fight] stigma and discrimination.’’

Georgia has agreed to create a range of supported housing and employment opportunities for people with mental illness, as part of its 2010 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the state’s mental health system.