Less judgment, more curiosity…


I’m going to ask you to picture someone with mental illness. Go ahead, take your time.

What came to mind?

Was it a middle aged woman shouting profanity on the bus? A creepy villain of your favorite thriller? Someone you saw on the news for violence, or perhaps murder? Maybe a little differently, an unemployed alcoholic who can’t hold down a job? If you conjured up any of these images, don’t be alarmed; it’s not just you, it’s the notorious reputation that mental illness carries. Even someone who reads the news every day, someone who advocates for social good, someone quite well versed in mental health may find themselves caught up in the claws of stigma. Amongst those with the illness, self-stigma is also quite severe.

You’d think it’d be easy to look past the wildly inaccurate image of mental illness after all the positive reaction and support that is pouring in of late, especially after Robin Williams’ tragic death. Although this attention is encouraging, and is a positive sign that we are on the right path, still, for now, it is not enough. I feel that it does not hold much weight over the towering presence of stigma. For some reason, these images of individuals with mental illness as violent and/or destructive are stained in our memory. Sometimes, even I, someone with mental illness in the family, automatically turn to these unfair images on first thought.

Now, I am not going to argue that people with mental illness never get violent, nor that there isn’t an issue with employability. Yes, there are issues. The problems do exist, but not anywhere remotely near to the frequency that we think there to be. The truth is mental illness is common, diverse, and manifests differently from person to person. It’s also not static; it could happen to someone out of the blue, and others could suffer all their lives and recover successfully. Although we may be aware of these facts, it’s still not what we believe. An article in the Health Harvard publication states that “60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else”. The numbers weren’t that much better for other forms of mental illnesses. Of course, the article goes on to clarify that this public perception does not reflect reality. Ironically enough, it is only a reality in our minds.

It is truly baffling that the stigma is so strong when reality says otherwise. We all know there are plenty of individuals with mental illness that are successful, productive members of society who do not resemble the fearsome image. There’s Kurt Vonnegut, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, SyIvia Plath, Emma Thompson, Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin, Leo Tolstoy, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Stephen Fry, Elton John; I truly could go on. It is not only the famous, there are plenty of everyday individuals with mental illness who do not fit that image either. One in five Canadians either has or will develop mental illness at some point in their lives. The number is not too different everywhere else in the world. That’s 20% of the population. They are people you meet every day. People you like. People you care about. How many of the 20% are violent and not to be trusted? Let’s be real: it’s not many.

Even after learning the facts, why does stigma continue to overpower our minds? Perhaps the Psychologists are on to something. Evolutionary Psychologists talk about a negativity bias that is hard wired into our brain that encourages us to remember more of the bad, and less of the good for our own survival. According to the theory, there was a greater need for our ancestors to remember the negative for immediate survival. Stumbling upon a lion, bumping into a bear, confrontation with a cobra: these were more urgent images to remember than finding a delicious pear. Thus our brains are wired to focus on the negative while largely ignoring the positive. Perhaps this explains our thinking when it comes to mental illness. Our defensive minds may feel much more comfortable associating mental illness with a violent intruder rather than thinking of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata.

On par with Evolutionary Psychologists, Cognitive Psychologists also tell us something similar to the above. They tell us we are prone to using something called the availability heuristic when making quick judgments. We tend to place a significant amount of importance on information that we can easily recall. If something is readily available in our mind, we are happy to believe it despite its validity. Perhaps that makes some sense in the context of mental illness. The woman shouting profanity on the bus, the homeless alcoholic on the street, and the constant headlines associating mental illness with violent offenders are the images that are readily available. That’s the image that we automatically recall. Penetrating the wall of stigma, the faint murmur of individuals that contribute positively to society are not recalled. The many stories of everyday individuals battling their illness in silence, those we don’t even hear. No, we automatically think of the most negative examples. The ones that didn’t receive necessary support and treatment, in part due to the crippling stigma.

So as it appears, our seemingly rational mind is also quite unreliable. Despite the facts, we continue to perpetuate the stigma. In a hurry, we make judgments that aren’t always accurate. We jump to the most desperate examples. When it comes to mental illness, mostly, it is our judgments that are flawed. What lesson can we learn from this? As simple as this may sound, perhaps we could all benefit from less judgment, and more curiosity. That’s the way forward.


Writer: Nilam Chhetri

Nilam is the Creator & Editor of Side By Side. She is an educator, writer and a therapist in training. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

38 responses to “Less judgment, more curiosity…

  1. “Stumbling upon a lion, bumping into a bear, confrontation with a cobra: these were more urgent images to remember than finding a delicious pear.” This is a very nice explanation of negativity bias. I did not know that.
    But I must ask, what percentage of schizophrenics are violent if not 60%?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My favorite statistic to quote to people about the assumption that people with mental illnesses are violent is that you’re statistically more likely to be killed by a shark than a schizophrenic (at least in the US). And the US averages around 15 shark attacks a year.

    The thing that often gets left out when advocates try to convince people that people with mental illnesses aren’t usually violent is that we’re far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. There is widespread abuse of people with mental illnesses, and when we try to speak out about it, we’re often silenced because we’re “unreliable witnesses.” Our illnesses put us in a more vulnerable position, and that’s magnified when we’re discredited instead of helped.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Very well said! =) I love the bit about being more curious than quick to judge. I know a lot of people would benefit from this. more empathizing than criticizing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful post. I used to imagine the people who look “crazy” when I thought of mental illness. Now that so many loved ones, as well as myself, have been diagnosed with various invisible illnesses, I’ve come to realize that the most normal looking person could in fact have a mental illness. I’ll be happy when there is no longer stigma associated with these illnesses. You’ve done a wonderful job in helping that happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I use to always think that people with mental illness, was as you describe until it finally hit me. Na it’s is often the abuse who develop this condition, even though it can take a long time to come out due to shame and stigma.


  6. Easy to picture someone with mental illness 🙂 I just look in the mirror. Its fantastic how you raise these issues. I have always been very open about the fact that I suffer from depression and that it can be very debilitating. I think attitudes are changing slowly but the more mental illness is discussed the more people will realise that that it is ‘normal’. Keep up the great work

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a great post on how readily we place pre-conceived ideas of mental health upon others. I find it funny that society today proud’s itself on how accepting and diverse it is yet the stigmas surrounding mental health are as strong as ever! While some may have changed, others have come forth. And it still amazes me how blind many people in society are to the prevalence of mental health! They are the ones who think the woman on the bus is a ‘psycho’ and has mental health issues and that these are the only ‘types’ of people who suffer from them. I chatted with a friend the other day about mental health and they told me they were certain they didn’t know anyone with any mental health issues and it just made me think, how many other people think like this? I wish I’d told him that he in fact does know someone with mental health issues, me.
    I think the main issue with stigma is that people, friends, family, are often unaware of those around them that are suffering and therefore continue to use these preconceived ideas of mental health.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for sharing that article. It was an interesting read. I agree that a lot of work needs to be done in educating the public to create social change, but am not certain that anti-stigma campaign are necessarily perpetuating stigma. It IS splitting hair to suggest that focusing on stigma means focusing on the “defects”. In my opinion, it’s just acknowledging the problem (a very big one). In doing anti-stigma work, we are not blaming the victims. I feel like the article assumes that is the case because the root of the word means “a mark of disgrace”. Anti-stigma campaigns aren’t saying people with mental illness deserve a mark of disgrace. They are saying society has put that mark of disgrace and it is unjust, just what the article is asking us to do with a different name. If I was to go out into the world and say “you are a bigot for not understanding mental illness.” who would listen? It would only offend society at large, and make people care even less. So, for me, for now, anti-stigma works just fine.

      Thanks again for sharing the article. What are your thoughts?

      BTW, you have a great blog. Keep up the excellent work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • After reading that article, I did actually see where the author was coming from – by saying the word ‘stigma’, a word we take to know as “a mark of disgrace”, we are subconsciously denoting that there’s something bad about mental illness that warrants that stigma. I don’t know if that makes sense!

        But upon further thought, people are smart enough to separate the word from mental illness, and they know that the word stigma is only describing negative attitudes. I agree with you on this one.

        Thanks for the kind words! I sometimes get blog doubts, so that means a lot.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. It’s a beautifully written post.

    There are many reasons for the stigma but one source that is never mentioned is psychiatry,

    The prevailing myth of behavioral psychiatry is that people
    who don’t “get better” don’t want to.

    That value judgement pervades our culture.

    Consider that Alzheimer’s Disease and severe Schizophrenia are more alike than different.

    Yet Alzheimer’s patients are treated with compassion while many
    schizophrenics are living in squalor on our streets.


    Part of the reason is legal.

    If a person in the middle of a floridly psychotic episode can
    state that he isn’t going to hurt himself or someone else he
    can refuse treatment even if he is a clear danger to himself
    in other, obvious ways…

    Again, the implication is a choice.

    I did not choose to be mentally ill and I do not choose
    to be punished for it…

    Mental illness does not always mean crazy but it does
    mean episodes of impaired judgement.

    It appalls me to think that there are laws on the books
    that would allow me to use my broken brain to refuse
    treatment AND that I would be stigmatized for making
    a bad choice by the people around me.

    I suppose it makes me angry because at no other point
    in history have so many people had so much access
    to the information we need to use reason.

    I don’t understand why ignorance in this area is still such
    a huge impediment to improving our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is so true! In my country a mentally ill woman attacked some high school students and killed one of them and when I went through the discussion after the article, it just made me sick. People wanting to kill her, to put all mentally ill people somewhere, imprison them etc… And what is worse, under this “pressure”, I sometimes feel like these people are right and I’m not fit for normal life, when I get sad and tired for no apparent reason, when I have to say out loud, “sorry I’m weird/sad/whatever, I just don’t feel ok”. I can’t even say out loud “sorry, I have depression right now and I’m not myself”. I feel embarrased that my boyfriend sees me this way, I’m embarassed even by his understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there,

      Thank you for sharing…It must be quite difficult to see that sort of reaction. I’m glad to hear that there is support and understanding in your life. Know that you deserve it. I hope you’ll be able to accept his support. If you’d like to speak further, feel free to email me.


  10. Pingback: Blogging Life Line | Stepping2YourDreams·

  11. Reblogged this on galesmind and commented:
    I think a lot of it is fear. If you educate yourself you can see there is very little to fear with mental illness. We don’t shun people with Cancer or other diseases out of fear. It should be the same with illnesses of the mind.


  12. I find it so odd that people in first world countries are horrified at the way mental illness is treated in their countries.
    My concern would be how mental illness is treated in countries where there is one medical doctor for every 100,000 people and a psychologist for one in 500,000. (won’t even go to the stats for psychiatrist)
    How perfectly normal infants languish untouched by human hands for years in orphanages and of course do not, ever, get treated for their mental illness. We are so egocentric focused only on what we see. hmmmmmm
    State run mental hospitals have been eradicated because of bad practices of 40 years ago, so now, instead of treatment, our mentally ill are turned out into the streets to fend for themselves and are, for the most part, housed in jails and prisons. How benevolent we are, rescuing them from treatment and sending them to jail. (Instead of improving the treatment)
    Mental illness is no more scary to us than aids, Ebola, cancer, dementia or other diseases.
    But if you have taken care of someone in your home with ANY of these biological problems you know that life is difficult for the afflicted,caretakers,and friends, family. Why is the negative view more powerful than the positives? For the obvious reason…… the negative, violent and untreated is scary
    The Kurt Vonnegut, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, SyIvia Plath, Emma Thompson, Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin, Leo Tolstoy, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Stephen Fry, Elton John is not.
    While I’m not in full agreement with this post it is a good one and one that needs to be posted..thanks


  13. One of the main difficulties with stigma and mental illness has to do with a certain circular logic. You must be crazy to behave like that, becomes everyone who behaves like that must be mad.
    Unfortunately the press coverage of many events mis portrays the perpetrators as crazy or mentally ill because of their behaviour.
    So all murderers must be mad, yet nearly all murder is committed by people known to the victim and who are not mentally ill.
    Violence by mentally ill people has been decreasing over the last thirty years or so, yet this is not something that you would be aware of from the news.
    The fact taht so many people in prison are mentally ill highlights this difficulty as well.
    Non mentally ill people are seen as crazy while the ones who are unwell are seen as bad and get locked up and so denied effective treatment.
    Like Wednesday in the Adams Family going to a fancy dress party as a psychopath in her normal clothes “they look just like us”, perhaps we need to confront these stereotypes by encouraging an openess to talking about our mental health.
    After all current estimates suggest that up to 40% of us either have or will have mental health problems at some point in our lives.
    Just because I struggle with a depressive outlook on the world does not make me a bad person!


  14. Interestingly, just before I read this, I was with a group of friends and we were discussing how we fit the statistics of the general population – eg, there was 6 of us, half female, so we’re about on track, out of the 6 of us 2 identified as LGBT so we were ahead of the curve there, out of those two both are women and one had experienced sexual violence (which 1 in 5 lgbt women have) so again way ahead of the curve and then we looked at mental illness…5 out of 6 of us had experienced it…mental illness is no longer the preserve of the ‘crazies’ on the bus, it is wide ranging, it doesn’t care abut age, gender, race and it needs to be better dealt with.


  15. I fear that much of this goes back to the mediaeval view of possession.
    If the mad are possessed by the devil they must be evil (whatever that means).
    They must have brought it on themselves.
    Not true of course but becomes cultural.


  16. The problem with stereotypes/what we have been taught to believe, is that they are inculcated into us when we are young. A period when we have little executive functioning or ability to make rational decisions. These ideas gat taken into our world view and rarely get challenged again.
    We assume them to be fact.
    The greater our curiosity the greater the likelihood that we willmake our own judgements based on fact.


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