The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Special Report: Mental Health

May 27, 2012

Suffering in Silence, Part 2: Denial, wishful thinking fuel stigma



Kathy Sheran, a state senator with a long history in the field, said the Legislature was considering a 17 percent cut to adult mental health services last year. The cut was eventually lowered to 10 percent.

Why the double standard? If mental and physical illness are the same, why are different standards applied to each?

To prick, then bleed

The word stigma comes from the Greek word for “to prick” and it originally referred to a mark cut or burned into the flesh to signify some lesser person, like a slave or criminal.

The word is more open-handed today, and others get a share of this now-invisible mark of shame.

The truth is that our national culture is one of rugged individualism,” said Farnsworth, the psychiatrist who works for Blue Earth County. “You pull yourself up by the bootstrap; you don’t admit to weakness.”

If you break your leg or get the flu, sympathy comes free. But there are no outward signs and, perhaps more importantly, no test for mental illness.

More and more, we do see biochemical markers,” said Farnsworth, formerly the medical director at the Regional Treatment Center. “They’re subtle.”

Even so, he’s skeptical, bordering on cynical, about most people’s ability to believe in a difference between laziness and mental illness.

Most of society’s happy if they’re locked up and put away until it’s one of their loved ones,” he said. “I still think personal stigma is pretty high.”

This rejection plays a unique role in sustaining mental illness.

The sense of shame people have, thinking that they’re weak,” Farnsworth said, compounds the illness.

And many illnesses come with a lack of insight, so that sufferers are already in a self-loathing mood. When you’re already facing imaginary slights to your person, real-life insults hit harder.

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