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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

The Real Cie January 9, 2014 at 10:40 pm

How do I want to be treated?
Like a human being.
On the whole, individuals with psychiatric illnesses are more likely to be victims than victimizers. Most of us are not violent, deranged, or delusional.

Michael Groat, PhD December 17, 2012 at 11:33 am

I think one thing important to keep in mind is the difference between dehumanizing others, which is what stigma does, and knowing our limits. Sometimes the actions and behaviors of others might worry us, frighten us, or exhaust us. When we are exhausted, we have a clear signal that we cannot keep doing more of the same. Sometimes that means setting limits with our loved ones, even if they are struggling with illness, and outlining what we will no longer tolerate–and expect them to get help. That can actually be one of the most loving things we do for them.

Jackie December 17, 2012 at 11:05 am

What if it’s your spouse and they think that they are the only person entilited to everything even over their children, I have been dealng with this for years he is getting worse. He spends money on himself and gets mad if I spend money on my family. He always says what about me over and over again and goes into to a rage.

jeremy paul hansen January 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm


pigeon in a skinner box… dogs and bells… lobotomists… ritalin pimps and they chase away the psychologists, healers.. even dentists… not even worthy of a regional health care execs…… perceptions and basic human needs? – worthless

I may be crazy but that doesnt mean I dont already know anything or lack the ability to learn and act in the best interests of myself and society… abusive shadow doctors treat me less than a dog

Doctors come from factories called obedience schools you know… The DEA keeps them on a leash… The DEA is responsible for assuring the proper distributions of rewards and punishments in society.. they assure the human plight will be liberated in the most natural best way.. they way it has always been… dont believe me… read the bible or go to jail

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