Schizophrenia and the Stigma We Ignore

Image credit: Oscar Keys

We talk a lot about the stigma of mental illness these days, and not just here–not a day goes by without some new effort to raise awareness of depression or anxiety, issues that are relatively common and usually entirely treatable. But those are not the only mental health issues around, and the fight against stigma often seems to stop with them.

Writing for Buzzfeed, Esmé Weijun Wang talks about what it’s like to deal with a mental illness that isn’t so common or well understood: schizophrenia. Through her own experiences, she explores the internalized stigma she has experienced since being diagnosed with schizophrenia, and how even those of us who are aware of stigma and the realities of mental illness are often just as quick as anyone to label and reject people with schizophrenia.

It’s a gut-wrenching read for anyone who has ever caught themselves thinking “yeah, I might be depressed, but at least I’m not crazy.”

A natural hierarchy arose in the hospital, guided by both our own sense of functionality and the functionality perceived by the doctors, nurses, and social workers that treated us. Depressives, who constituted most of the ward’s population, were at the top of the chain, whether or not they were receiving ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). Because we were in the Yale Psychiatric Institute (now known as the Yale Psychiatric Hospital), many of those hospitalized with depression were Yalies, and therefore considered bright people who’d simply wound up in a bad situation. In the middle were those with anorexia and bipolar disorder — two disorders not necessarily linked by nature, but lumped together from a lack of other diagnoses on the ward. I was considered to be in this group, and perhaps even as highly ranked as the depressives because of my status as a student at Yale. The ones with schizophrenia, on the other hand, landed at the rock bottom — excluded from group therapy, seen as lunatic and raving, and incapable of fitting into the requirements of normalcy.

I’ve seen the psychiatric hierarchy elsewhere — a hierarchy of who can be seen as high-functioning and “gifted,” and who can be seen as not being capable of either. A much-liked meme on Facebook circulated months ago, in which a chart listed so-called advantages to various mental illnesses. Depression bestowed sensitivity and empathy; ADHD allowed people to hold large amounts of information at once; anxiety created useful caution. I knew before reading it that schizophrenia wouldn’t make an appearance. As with most marginalized groups, there are those who are considered more socially appropriate than others. Being seen as inevitable failures by the dominant culture causes a desire to distance yourself from other, similarly marginalized people who are seen as even less capable of success.

Wang approaches the subject with humor and grace, but it’s not easy to confront our own blind spots. She knows it, too–because even having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, she recognizes just how much she wants to be the “good schizophrenic.”

There are no easy answers offered in her piece, but here’s one thing we can all do: we can remember that stigma doesn’t start and end with the issues that are easiest to understand.