Stigma Within the Healthcare System

Last week I came across a video on social media that opened my eyes to something I should have known all along. The video was meant to send a plea to emergency room workers to extend compassion when dealing with people who suffer with mental illnesses. And the author said something obvious and heartbreaking; “I have encountered more stigma from the medical profession that in any other area in my life.”

I paused on this idea. Was that true? Does the medical profession stigmatize people with mental illness? I felt defensive, and I wanted to say that no, it was not true. But having worked in the Emergency Room and in hospitals, the stigma was undeniable.

I have overheard cruel jokes, seen harsh and punitive interventions, and witnessed people with mental illness being treated more like dangerous, drug-seeking criminals that like the scared, vulnerable people they are. 

A mental disorder diagnosis decreases insurance allowances compared with other diseases, too. This is still true in spite of laws that require equal treatment and payments. 

Recently, I had to write a letter to a colleague explaining how her office staff discriminated against one of our mutual patients because the patient is mentally ill and poor. The staff member didn’t take the normal steps in requesting insurance coverage for the patient. When it became apparent there was a problem with the paperwork, the staff member first lied about what steps she had taken. Later she became defensive and behaved unprofessionally, stating that requesting coverage for this patient would have been a waste of effort. 

Stigma within the healthcare profession is an undeniable reality. Healthcare has a long way to go before we treat people with mental illness with the kindness and compassion they deserve. 

Ways You Can Help Decrease Mental Health Stigma from Within the Healthcare System:

Educate yourself
Dealing with illness you don’t understand is the surest way to lose compassion and react on your frustrations. Preparation through education is the best way to avoid angry reactions to what you don’t understand. Expand your understanding and extend more compassion.

Be patient
Take a deep breath and extend compassion to people with mental illnesses. Remember, this is harder for them that for us. 

Refuse to laugh at stigmatizing jokes
Mental illness isn’t funny. People in distress are not a comedy routine. Mental disorders aren’t playful little quirks of personality that we all have. When you encounter stigma disguised as “humor,” don’t participate.  

Call a specialist
If you are in over your head in the care of a patient, ask a specialist for help. Mental health professionals have extensive training in dealing with some of the most difficult aspects of the illnesses we treat. Call someone with additional expertise. 

Step in when a professional is reacting
Whether you are a healthcare worker yourself, or an observer, have the courage to step forward and intervene when you see a professional struggling. We all have to work together to change the culture that accepts poor treatment of people with mental illnesses. 

Speak out against discrimination
Have the courage to report abuses and frank discrimination. Sometimes at the height of their crisis, people with mental illnesses are unable to advocate for fair treatment themselves. They depend on all of use to step forward and protect them. 

Posted on December 19, 2016 .