How would you react if I told you that people with mental illness can be compared to snakes? Your assumption may be that I am going to proceed by discussing how people with mental illness, like snakes, are evil or dangerous. Now, how would you react if I identified a seemingly normal person as “crazy” or “mentally ill.” You would probably have a similar reaction. This is because, like snakes, the reputation of those with mental illness is compromised due to stigma.
During a workshop I conducted on mental health stigma, the first question I asked the adult audience was, “how would you respond if your child asked if they could have a pet snake?” In unison, the audience immediately appeared repulsed with raised eyebrows and sighs of disgust. This immediate reaction is known as prejudice, or the feeling or attitude that someone has regarding a specific population. When I asked participants why they appeared upset by the question, most of them stumbled over their words when trying to explain their reactions. The few that were able to articulate the reasons for their reaction expressed their belief of snakes being “dangerous” and “evil.” These thoughts are known as stereotypes, which are beliefs we perceive to be true about a certain population. I challenged this by stating, “the majority of snakes are not poisonous and any pet snake would be non-venomous. So how are they dangerous?” This left participants stumped and unable to explain why they had such an adverse reaction to the original question. In direct parallel to not hiring or dating someone because of their disclosed or perceived mental illness, the participants’ decision to deny their child a pet snake is called discrimination, which is an unjust behavior motivated by negative prejudice and stereotypes.
How do we form these prejudices and stereotypical views? As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained during her Ted Talk: The Danger of a Single Story, we form our opinions with regard to certain populations based on the stories we hear about them. The issue lies in the fact that the media typically shares only one story, or portrayal, about stigmatized populations. We’ve all heard stories about snakes and stories about people with mental illness, but they all have a similar theme: that they’re dangerous and evil. We can see evidence of this throughout history. Snakes are and have nearly always been portrayed as evil within Western culture. One of the very first stigmatizing portrayals many are exposed to is the Biblical book of Genesis, where Eve was believed to have been deceptively lured to eat the forbidden fruit by a snake, which many scholars believe metaphorically represented the devil. In the Disney movie Aladdin, the malicious Jafar becomes a snake as a representation of his evil nature. In the Harry Potter series, Nagini, a snake, was a precious horcrux belonging to the notoriously evil Voldemort, who had to be killed in order to defeat the dark wizard.
Similarly, people with mental illness have been thought of as evil for centuries. Historically, those with mental illness were treated brutally. In most parts of the world, having mental illness was at one time comparable to being possessed by demons or engaging in witchcraft, which often led to executions. In our own history of mental health treatment, individuals with serious mental illness were sometimes chained within cages and put on display to entertain the public. Although this is no longer common in the United States, there continues to be innumerable negative portrayals of those with mental illness that endlessly shapes the way we view these individuals. The majority of horror movies share a terrifying story of mental illness that is rare in reality. A recent example of this is the controversial movie, Split, in which having dissociative identity disorder causes the main character to become a brutal murderer. Linguistically, these portrayals are reinforced by how we label those who are undesirable or dangerous as “snake” or “crazy.”
You may automatically assume that most of the examples above are simply metaphorical, but take a moment to consider the factual stories we hear from various news sources. How often have you heard a story on the news regarding a snake? I can only recall two that I have heard throughout my lifetime and both involved the snakes killing their owners. While covering these stories on “killer” snakes, the media does not mention any of the positive benefits that snakes provide both as pets or in nature. This is parallel to the stories we hear about people with mental illness. Professionals will utilize the media to divulge their opinions on whatever mental illness they believe every white male mass shooter in the U.S. had, but where are the positive stories about those with mental illness who have achieved success and become positive influences to society? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults residing in the United States has a mental illness in any given year. This means we are surrounded by individuals, some of which have an immensely positive impact on our lives, who have at least one mental health diagnosis. Yet, we only get a single story of what these creatures and people are like: dangerous and evil.
At the end of the group discussion, one participant stated that she would in fact permit her child to have a pet snake. When I asked her why, she explained that she had snakes growing up so she didn’t feel like it was unsafe for a child to have one. This perfectly demonstrated the point I wanted to make: exposure decreases our belief in stereotypes, development of prejudice, and discriminatory behavior against any population because it gives us more than the often skewed and one-sided story we get from the media. Whether you fear snakes or people with mental illness, expose yourself to their stories. If you suffer from mental illness, share your story. Together, we can change the way we, and society as a whole, view stigmatized populations.