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How labelling affects mental health problems

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Labelling theory is linked to Howard Becket and was introduced in 1963.  Labelling theory is the theory of a behaviour that is considered different from the customary or a behaviour that is generally accepted as standard.  It is considered by some sociologist that this type of behaviour is seen as a label given to an individual whose behaviour is not considered normal by certain people of authority.  Therefore, labelling means that no individual is actually abnormal and no deed is unusual unless it has been identified by society.

According to Pilgrim and Rogers (1999) the labelling theory works on the principle that to identify a person as having mental health problems it is suggested that the individual will act in a stereotypical manner.   It was thought at one time that having a mental health problem was owing to some form of personal weakness.  However, as time has gone by mental illness has become more accepted by society and the public have become more learned and it could be true to say that  it is well known now that mental health disorders have a medical basis and can be treated like any other health condition.

Being considered mentally healthy does not routinely imply that a person does not have a mental health problem.  Good health usually represents that a person is able to play a full part in society albeit within a family setting, in the workplace, within community or amongst other people or friends.   It also suggest that a person who is in good mental health can deal with what life throws at them and more often than not will be capable of make the most of their potential within any given situation. 

 

According to ‘The World Health Organisation’ mental health is:

” a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”(WHO, 2001).

 

Mental health illness for that reason could be said is a state where the well being of an individual is flawed in some way and is incapable of undertaking ‘normal’ day to day functions.  It could be said that mental health is everyone’s concern.  The majority of people at one time or another will admit to feeling stressed out and unable to cope with what life throws at them but usually those feeling pass.  However at other times these problems can develop into something much more serious.  Some can bounce back with no problem at all while others might take a longer time to deal with their problems. 

 

Scheff (1999) considers that mental illness in a person is brought about by ‘societal labelling’.  He suggests that the symptoms of mental illness are   seen as infringement of the social norms.  By most social values behaviour associated with mental illness such violent outburst, anxiety, delusions and attempts of suicide are considered abnormal.   Therefore, the cause for a person to be labelled as mentally ill does not automatically mean infringement of the social norm.  The person to a certain extent is labelled when a situation can bring about what the public would perceive as abnormal behaviour.  This could mean for example, when an application is made to place that individual in a mental institution or hospital and as a result that individual is is labelled as mentally ill.

Labelling leads to stigma, which is a word associated with branding and shame.   Stigma has been defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a mark or sign of disgrace and discredit”. 

 

Goffman (1963) also suggested that disability was associated with shame and pity and that the term ‘stigma’ has been adopted from the Greeks which imply a ‘mark that represent immorality’.   Research also shows that stigma is more strongly expressed against people with mental disabilities, which, under the influence of Buddhism and Animism, are believed to represent possession by evil sprits (Hunt 2002).    Studies also show that individuals with a mental health illness are most rejected people among any disabled groups (Albrecht, Walkeer & Levy, 1982)   It has also been suggested by Jones (1985) that the process of stigmatization is based on six elements, namely conceability, course, disruptiveness, aesthetic qualities, origin and peril. 

Although there are 8.6 million disabled people in Britain that is 1:7 of the population who have either a physical, sensory or mental impairment that seriously affects their day-to-day activities, people with mental health continue to be excluded from discourse on difference and diversity.  Discourses can have an impact on the ways in which people with mental health illness are portrayed and treated within society and this in turn may influence the actions taken by people and the judgments they make.  Different cultures can also have different perception, so can different situations and circumstances.

 

Having a mental illness, and living with it on a day to day basis can be intensely difficult for the individual suffering from it.  Mental illness by today standards is believed to be very common, due to the fact that one in four in the United Kingdom is diagnosed with a mental illness.  Sufferers of the illness experience many problems, which include the way they think, behave or how they feel.  These problems can lead to problems with everyday living, such as maintaining relationships, access to or performance at work, not being accepted by the community that they live in. 

A report written by the government into Mental Health and Social Exclusion, and published by the Social Exclusion Unit in 2004, recognized the discrimination and stigma experienced by people with mental health issues as a major stumbling block to be included socially, and thus making it very hard for those individual to access work, access health services, take part in their communities, and to take pleasure in doing things with their family and friends.   The report also states that 83 percent of those interviewed identified stigma as a major contributor; 55 percent identified stigma as a barrier to work; and 52 percent had experienced a negative attitudes towards mental health in the community.

According to a survey, called the ‘Stigma Shout’ (2008) survey revealed that:

“Nearly 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems have been affected by stigma and discrimination, with two thirds saying they have stopped doing things because of the stigma they face”.

“Stigma stops people with mental health problems from doing everyday things such as applying for jobs, making new friends, and going out to pubs and shops. It can even prevent people from reporting a crime”.

“People with mental health problems want the anti-stigma campaign to target schools and the media to change attitudes and reduce prejudice”.

“Carers of people with mental health problems also stop doing things because of the stigma and discrimination that they face”.

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/news/stigma-shout-survey-shows-real-impact-stigma-and-discrimination-peoples-lives

 

Mental health problems are commonly identified and categorized in order for professional people to be able to provide suitable support and treatment.    However, some diagnoses are considered controversial and concern is expressed that individuals are frequently treated in line with by what they have been labelled with. 

 

There are many conditions that are believed to be associated to mental health illness, including  anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders and plenty more.  Any person presenting signs of the mental health problems will more often than not be labelled by society in some way.    As noted earlier labelling leads to stigma and stigma in turn can lead to discrimination.   It is highly publicized that there should be no discrimination against people of a difference appearance, race culture, religion but people are less conscious of discrimination against people with a mental health illness.  

 

Being discriminated against can play a big part in an individual’s life who may be experiencing mental health problems.  It is known that stigma associated with mental health issues can be very hurtful and damaging and can inhibit the individual from accessing support and treatment in order to lead a normal life.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 44% of people who experienced some form of mental health issues felt they had been discriminated by their G.P’s, and 35% said they’d been discriminated by health professionals.  However, it is suspected by some that the principal  reason for the health care professionals to behave in this manner is because they are considered inexperienced in the field of mental health issues. On the other hand, some individuals who have been labelled as suffering with mental health problems are of the opinion that mental health problems are fabricated and invented by professional people who make money from the belief that mental health issues are problematic.  One example which demonstrates how health care services are being prejudice is that sufferers of schizophrenia are prohibited from giving blood or giving away any of their vital organs as they are perceived as mentally incapacitated. 

 

As previously referred to statistics show that at any given time one in every four adult and one in every five children live through a mental health problem.   It is estimated that approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem.  – World Health Organisation (2001)  The total cost of mental health problems in England is currently more than £77 billion a year which is double previous estimates (Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health 2003)

 

Due to the labelling associated with mental health problems many of these people will not access help at an early stage and the illness will become worse.  It is widely known that people with a mental health illness are less likely to be in full time employment in comparison to other groups of disabled people.  In 2001, people with a mental health problem were almost three times more likely to be unemployed than all other disabled people (Smith and Twomey 2002)   Many of these people do not make an effort to obtain work  for a number of reasons or are discriminated by employers because of their illness. 

 

It has been proved that not dealing with mental illness within the work place costs over  

£9 billion a year  (Department of Health 2006).  In order to address this issue the government has published a mental health strategy with the main objective to help mental health sufferers gain and retain employment.   The strategy namely, ‘Working Our Way to Better Mental Health: A Framework for Action Strategy (2009), is aimed at helping people safeguard their illness, and when a problem arises, get the help and treatment that they need.  The strategy also aims to reduce discrimination and to reduce the levels of labelling that is associated with the illness. 

To realize improved practises in maintaining a good working relationship between the workplace and those suffering from mental health problems, the Government has advised employers that they need to follow the principles included in the strategy to shed light on the impact of mental health problems.

The Secretary of State for Health,  Andy Burnham said:

 “Life-threatening conditions like cancer or heart disease prompt sympathy and understanding. But mental health is all too often shrouded in mystery, stigma or simply forgotten”.

To coincide with the launch of the above mentioned strategy the Department of Work and Pensions have also assigned a review led by Dr Rachel Perkins to offer help and guidance on how best to develop and improve the support for people with a mental health problem who are unemployed. By following the Governments and the Department of Health’s guidance and support, it is expected that many businesses will see the potential benefits to their workplace such as reduced sickness levels, higher levels of customer service,   reduced staff turnover and lots more. 

Many people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness could also face the probability of suddenly being unaccepted by friends and family; this is usually due to the fact that people are uncertain of the illness.  Being ‘singled out’ by those they considered to be their friends or even a close family member makes the circumstances worse for the sufferer.  Individuals usually find it hard to make new friends which in turn can make them feel totally isolated and worthless.  

 

It is often believed that the media is responsible for wrongly representing someone with mental health issues and that the tabloids very often  show bad outlook towards people with mental illness  by applying words such as ‘psycho’ or ‘mad’ or even a  ‘nutter’.  Using such words to portray a person suffering with mental illness is seen to be encouraging society to believe that they are all dangerous and unapproachable.  Inadequate and incorrect media coverage of mental health issues has increased over the last three years claims the ‘Mind report’ published in 2008.

In spite of this however not all interpretation of mental illness in the media is negative. Stephen Fry spoke openly about his mental health issues and was in the main represented positively in the media. ‘My battle with mental illness’ (2006)  

During research for his documentary ‘The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive’, Stephen Fry discovered that his illness (bi-polar) affects hundreds of thousands of people in the

U. K.  He was also appalled to learn the degree of preconception there was in relation to mental illness:

 “I want to speak out, to fight the public stigma and to give a clearer picture of mental illness that most people know little about.”

He also stated that there was a need for a better awareness of mental health issues amongst the public in order for people to share their problems and break their silence:

“Once the understanding is there, we can all stand up and not be ashamed of ourselves, then it makes the rest of the population realise that we are just like them but with something extra.”

A research undertaken by the charity ‘Mind’ revealed that 73% of those with mental health problems felt that, the way the media portray the illness is negative, unfair and totally unbalanced (Mind Report 2008).  Many of the stories that appear in the media all promote the idea that mental illness is wrong and something to be ashamed of.   

Over the years the Government has made inroads to tackle discrimination against people who have mental health issues and have introduced policies in order to transform the way people view mental health problems. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 makes certain that discrimination does not take place in the workplace and other places because of mental health problems. The Mental Health Bill was also introduced by the Government in 2002 which introduced a statutory framework for the compulsory treatment and care for mental health sufferers and there are many groups and organizations attempting to highlight the plights of mental health sufferers and are focusing on reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems.  

On reflection, it is understandable that many people who have mental health problems would not approve of the way sufferers are being perceived and labelled.  The term mental illness for some people can be associated with abnormal behaviour and as a result can prevent them from fitting into what would be considered a normal environment and take advantages of all the opportunities and benefits associated with it. 

As revealed the media is considered to be a very influential means of educating people and that more attention should be given to reporting on more positive features of mental illness, namely how people have recovered and what in terms of medicine and treatment are available today to combat mental illness. This is turn could have a major influence on the public attitudes and beliefs.   Some people would also suggest that better training of mental health professionals would promote better health care and better understanding of issues surrounding mental illness.   This in turn would show the way to a more positive attitude amongst people in society as sufferers are able to take part in everyday life. 

 

As many of the literature on mental health problems implies, there continues to be a long way to go in order to overcome many of the misconceptions, the prejudices and fears associated with mental health problems and the stigma involved.   So that harmful and negative attitudes to mental health problems are eradicated there is a need for the public to be much more aware of what it feels to live with such problems and that it takes courage and strength on the part of the sufferer.   The public also need to be aware that mental illness can be managed or even treated like many other diseases or conditions.  It is also important to highlight that the stereotyping of mental incapacity and hostility is greatly mistaken.

 

 

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