Despite the vast number of Americans who will have at least one major mental illness over the course of their lifetime (roughly 50 percent by the time we include substance abuse disorder, dementias such as Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, etc), we continue to struggle with a societal prejudice against and fear of mental illness. Media representations of mental illness typically focus on scary, out-of control people who do bad things, further worsening the perception of mental illness. On the plus side, in recent years we’ve seen more high-profile individuals willing to talk about their own struggles with mental illness and substance abuse. As mental illness is demystified and given a human face, stigma decreases.
Connected to stigma is the issue of disclosure. Many people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are frightened of disclosing their conditions, often with good reason: fear of discrimination, losing a job, not getting a promotion, etc. This presents something of a dilemma, because without putting the face of your family member, neighbor, you, or your boss on bipolar disorder, it continues to be something unknown and scary.
With the rise of the consumer movement and with the advocacy and education work of groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Bazelon Institute, Mental Health America, and others, the stigma of having a mental disability or illness is slowly lessening, although there’s still a long way to go.