04/27/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

There's No Stigma to Having a Mental Illness

Stigma is dead.

Stigma was eradicated years and years ago in many people who suffer from no-fault biological diseases. For example, stigma used to exist in men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer. It also existed in people with no illness at all: gays, lesbians, the left-handed and other historically marginalized populations.

But over time all these groups found a cure: they simply decided that there was no stigma to having cancer or being gay, lesbian or lefty. It was not, as some claimed, a "mark of shame" or "token of disgrace." Period.

They killed stigma and recognized that what they were really suffering was prejudice and discrimination.

While eliminating "stigma" was relatively easy, requiring only a change in their own thinking, the battle to eliminate prejudice and discrimination was much harder and is still ongoing, because it requires changing others. But importantly, eliminating prejudice and discrimination couldn't be done without first recognizing that the alleged "stigma" that was preventing everyone from speaking out didn't even exist. Stigma was killed, and everyone moved on to focus on the real enemy: prejudice and discrimination.

Mental illness advocates should do the same. Declare stigma dead and move on to focus on what really exists: prejudice and discrimination against the mentally ill.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, it should be celebrated as "Stigma Is Dead Month." Next year it should be converted to "End Discrimination Against The Mentally Ill Month."

Activities should not focus on "expanding awareness of mental illness." As I wrote in one of the articles I am most proud of, current mental illness awareness activities are not only ineffective, but they are harmful. Almost all of them are designed to work by hiding the most seriously ill and parading around the highest functioning and least-symptomatic in an effort to convince the public that this somehow reflects the reality of untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It has the exact opposite of increasing awareness of the horrors of the illness. It's like trying to raise funds for hunger by only showing the well-fed.

Instead of focusing on nonexistent stigma, we should focus on eliminating the public policies that discriminate against the mentally ill and are causing so many to become homeless, incarcerated or the victims of suicide.

There are a host of those: a two-tiered health system that shunts people with mental illness to substandard medical care; laws that require people with mental illness (unlike those with Alzheimer's) to become dangerous before they can be treated; Medicaid policies that refuse to reimburse the mentally ill in hospitals; and policies that send the most seriously mentally ill to the end of the line for mental health services rather than the front.

Stigma is dead. Discrimination and prejudice really exist.

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