How should people with mental illness be treated?

by Michael Groat, PhD on March 16, 2010 · 6 comments

in stigma,Uncategorized

In the event you run into someone you know has mental illness, do you whisper to him because you think people with mental illness are violent and easily excitable, or do you speak slowly because people with mental illness are probably not as smart as the rest of us?

Consider this: With one in four individuals experiencing mental illness every year, you are likely already interacting with someone who has a mental illness, according to Mental Health America. Think about that the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, checking a book out of the library or taking the bus to work.

Here’s my first rule of thumb: Treat someone with mental illness as a person, not as an illness. After all, all humans have vulnerabilities as well as strengths and our humanity is found in the sum of our parts, not just in one or two.

Secondly, people should be treated based on your experience with them. Snap judgments can be faulty and may deprive us of true understanding of others.

You can’t know that your butcher, mechanic or co-worker is dealing with a mental illness, just as you can’t know they are dealing with diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure unless they tell you.

Here are some tips–rules of the road, if you will–adapted from the National Center on Workforce and Disability that may help you treat fairly the people you may know who are struggling with mental illness:

  1. The terms mental illness and psychiatric disorder are essentially interchangeable. Derogatory labels demean those people suffering from mental illness.
  2. People with psychiatric disorders are not more likely to be violent.
  3. Do not assume that people with psychiatric disorders also have cognitive disabilities or are less intelligent than the general population.
  4. Do not assume that people with psychiatric disorders are not capable of working in a wide variety of jobs that require a wide range of skills and abilities.
  5. Do not assume that people with psychiatric disorders do not know what is best for them, or have poor judgment.
  6. If someone with a psychiatric disorder gets upset, ask calmly if there is anything you can do to help and then respect their wishes.
  7. Do not assume that a person with a psychiatric disability is unable to cope with stress.

These tips point to a basic attitude of understanding and compassion for individuals who have a mental illness, and recognition of the competencies each person demonstrates. Open mindedness, curiosity and a willingness to get to know people without preformed judgments goes a long way in showing basic human courtesy and a respect for human dignity.

According to A Guide to Disability Rights Law, a publication from the U.S. Department of Justice, people with mental illness should receive fair treatment and should be afforded certain protections. These include the right to:

  • be treated with respect and dignity
  • have their privacy
  • receive age- and culturally-appropriate services
  • understand available treatment options and alternatives
  • receive care that does not discriminate on the basis of age, race or type of illness

Not only is that good etiquette, it happens to be the law.

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