Bat-shit crazy. Violent. Weird. Dangerous. Killer. Looney. Maniac.
The lives of people with mental health conditions are often plagued by stigmatization (or stigma).
According to Dr. Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who is recognized in the areas of stigma and self-regulation, stigma is a characteristic that marks someone as devalued.
“It needs to be some characteristic that is devalued at some level by society. Mental health is a marker of character. There is something about you, your feelings, your disposition, or personality that is negatively appraised and devalued in society.”
Many individuals with mental illness report that how others judge them is one of the greatest barriers to a complete and satisfying life. For example, more than 60 percent of people with mental health problems and mental illness won’t seek the help they need, and stigma is one of the main reasons . Not surprisingly, stigma spreads fear and misinformation, labels individuals, and, inevitably, perpetuates stereotypes.
“As you get devalued, you get treated differently as a function of that. You then build up expectations of your being devalued and that changes your own psychology and your own way of positively relating and connecting with others when you expect to be devalued,” claims Inzlicht.
And for those who partake in the stigmatizing, the process, according to Inzlicht, is one that, although initially deliberate, can easily become automatic. “I think we hear over and over again or we see depictions of people who have mental health issues in very negative light, and we aren’t aware of how common it is. But then, we start to quickly and negatively evaluate it in people. It may start out as being deliberate, but it can quickly be routinized and automatized. And it can come to us from society. And it can be implicit and explicit.”
So, does this mean that one is forever bound by the automaticity of devaluing those with mental illness? Can one stop him or herself from compulsorily evaluating those afflicted with mental health problems in a negative light?
Mental health stigma can be significantly reduced.
But to make this happen, Dr. Zindel Segal suggests that good intentions and mindfulness may be the key exterminating ingredients.
According to Segal, a distinguished professor of clinical psychology and prominent researcher in mindfulness-based clinical care, mindfulness is a state that entails awareness, attention, and nonjudgmental acceptance of what one’s mind becomes attuned to. These are characteristics, however, that Segal argues are not present in many and require effort, time, and practice to adopt and move into from current states of thinking.
“[First] we become aware of what’s going on in our experience, in terms of sensations, thoughts, or feelings. The other part of it is that we are not judging our experiences. So it’s awareness, attention and nonjudgmental acceptance brought in together, which describes a different way that the mind usually operates and that’s why it’s distinct because we aren’t often mindful.”
Rather, we are often on automatic pilot, doing things based on routines and habits, such as stigmatizing attitudes. And mindfulness, according to Segal, offers us a way of stepping out of that.
However, he emphasizes that the core mechanics behind mindfulness’ powerful touch on stigma are, first and foremost, intention, and then choice.
To begin with, mental health stigma, according to both Inzlicht and Segal, relies on separation.
“My mind is healthier and your mind is sick. My abilities are intact and your abilities are compromised. But once we start to see the mind as something that we all share, then it’s harder to go with that separation view,” claims Segal.
One of the underlying assumptions of mindfulness practice, Segal asserts, is that we all have the same mind and our minds all want to do the same thing. “Our minds are all the same and we just kind of know different parts of them or we know a smaller amount than other people know. With mindfulness, individuals can be more aware of their interconnectedness, so there’s less of a tendency to see people as different.”
Another way through which mindfulness acts as a barrier to stigmatizing thoughts has been illustrated in cognitive processing studies. Segal argues that mindfulness allows individuals to step back from automatic appraisals, which enables different information to enter their decision making. From there, it is suggested that individuals arrive at different conclusions that do not devalue others.
“With mindfulness, you become able to watch the content of your mind in a way that allows you to not fully identify what your mind is broadcasting to you.”
First, with good intentions, one can say “I don’t want to be a person who judges others or stigmatizes others”. Then, mindfulness, through enhancing one’s awareness and attention, provides a buffer between an automatic appraisal and the decision making process of an action. And ultimately, one has the opportunity to simply nonjudgmentally accept those automatic appraisals, but to refrain from expressing or acting on them.
In explaining this, Segal provides the example of a disheveled homeless individual, begging for money on the street.
“The first place your mind goes to is ‘That person is crazy, dangerous, and deserves what they get. Why can’t they just get a job?’ With mindfulness, however, you might be able to step back and watch that thought happen without necessarily buying into it,” claims Segal. “Part of what training in mindfulness involves is watching your thoughts and anytime you start to have certain thoughts come up, you can say to yourself ‘These are the thoughts that are coming into my mind. Do I want to go with this? Do I really want to believe this?’”
It is these types of questions that tap into one’s intention: To stigmatize or to not stigmatize?
Thus, mindfulness, Segal clarifies, will not stop automatic appraisals from coming up, but it will let you decide whether you want to move forward with those appraisals or think and behave differently, based on your intentions.
It is a way of helping you act in greater concordance with your intentions. As you start to practice mindfulness, your intentions also become clearer to you, claims Segal. If your intention is not to be stigmatizing, for example, mindfulness allows you to see when those moments come up for you and how you choose to act.
“Mindfulness helps you act on that in a way that lets you step back from some of these automatic tendencies that might be in us or fed in us by society, communication, and messages. So you have more control over these heavy things,” asserts Segal.
So, the bad news is that there may not be a way to stop processing automatic, stigmatizing thoughts. However, the good news, according to Inzlicht and Segal, is that we don’t need to. Instead, we should focus on having good intentions to not stigmatize and remain aware and nonjudgmentally accepting of these automatic thoughts–so as not to act on them. Considering the thousands of automatic thoughts each person has everyday, mindfulness may be a good start to ensuring that what we believe coincides with how we act. And this may, ultimately, contribute to the betterment of the live’s of those afflicted with mental illness.
By: Veerpal Bambrah
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
 Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2015). Stigma. Retrieved from: http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/issues/stigma