Biases are known to be ingrained in the human nature. Ironically, the bias starts reflecting in our approach to an individual’s health, even if the sufferer is a loved one, as we give priority to physical health over mental health. Many of the biases regarding mental health are inbuilt or are passed on from one generation to another.
Social media has a considerable role in propagating such biases. Without proper evidence, many crimes of violent nature, such as shootings, murders, etc., are often ascribed to mental disorders. As indicated by Jonathan M. Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., and Kenneth T. MacLeish, Ph.D., in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, most of the mass shootings in America are attributed to mental illnesses, and are often considered the root cause of violence.
The stereotype that “all persons with mental illness are violent” add fuel to the prevailing negative mindset against mental disorders. Another deep-rooted stigma regarding mental ailments is that people with some kind of mental deformity are incapable of independent living or doing competitive work. The fact that most physicians suffering from mental disorders such as depression or anxiety do not seek help, fearing that it would hinder their professional life, points at the deep-seated bias related to mental disorders.
Whether it is schizophrenia, bipolar or depression, a common perception about these mental disorders is that they are a character flaw. Depression, for example, is seen as sign of a weak-willed spirit. Also, in many instances, it is believed that mental disorders can be set right with attitudinal changes. For example, many believe that children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) need to be more disciplined and spanking is the best way to ensure that they behaved appropriately. Unfortunately, this tendency results in many with mental illnesses to be punished or discriminated against for no fault of theirs.
Implicit and explicit bias
Bias can broadly be divided into two types – implicit and explicit. It is a case of explicit bias when the individual is aware that he or she is biased against a particular person or group and uses it against a perceived threat. For example, painting all immigrants and refugees as potential sociopaths and antisocial elements is a form of explicit bias. According to Alexandra Werntz, University of Virginia and PIMH researcher, people are familiar with explicit biases, and “they are influenced by a lot of different factors, like willingness to disclose and social desirability.”
Implicit bias is, however, more difficult to understand because an individual is unaware of its existence. It is beyond the boundaries of one’s consciousness or awareness, but more likely to impact the way one behaves with regard to those with mental health disorders. For example, people showing implicit bias tend to believe that people with mental illness are helpless and negative, and should be blamed for their wrongdoings.
Determining the impact of bias on mental health outcomes
While bias is a common occurrence with regard to mental health, discriminatory behavior because of inbuilt prejudices could have a negative impact on the diagnoses and treatment. Past studies have indicated that many mental health professionals continue to endorse negative biases about mental illness.
Apart from the lack of empathy, a constant stigma surrounding mental disorders can result in increased anger and an unwillingness to help the patient in need. It was observed that the attitude of the health care professionals toward mentally ill patients reflected “paternalistic approaches.” While there was an element of empathy involved, in most instances it was believed that patients with mental disorders were incompetent.
Mental disorders are treatable
Whether it is a depression or an anxiety disorder or a neurodegenerative disorder, mental disorders are certainly not a character flaw. Recovery seems difficult as long as one keeps postponing the need to seek treatment. Understanding the importance of having a sound mental health can give rise to a new perspective on life that would further enhance the quality of overall health.