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Awareness puts stigma in its place

October 8, 2012
By GREG HITCHCOCK , The Leader Herald

This week is Mental Health Awareness week and across America, many local communities are coming together in support of this cause. Among its intended outcomes is putting stigma in its place.

Stigma is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a mark of shame or discredit. It also has another meaning, a scar left by a hot iron. People living with a mental illness have been left scarred by the hot iron of public opinion.

The public shame surrounding the mentally ill is an old one. For centuries, most people thought people with mental illnesses were inferior beings deserving of sympathy or, worse, scorn.

Back then, they were outcasts and pariahs from society, either locked away in private homes or in public mental hospitals never to see the light of day.

We have come a long way since then. Today, most mentally ill people are living among the general population either in neighborhood group homes or even maintaining their own apartments and jobs.

This treatment has given the mentally ill hope for a life, a life filled with meaning and purpose. With proper treatment, care and respect, many of the mentally ill can live fulfilling lives.

Although greatly reduced since the darkest days when the mentally ill were considered possessed by evil spirits, some stigma still remains.

Many of the stigmatized have been discriminated against in housing, employment, education and health care. For some, it has been a challenge to fight for their rights and still remain optimistic.

For example, the greatest number of the unemployed are veterans returning from war who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many Vietnam veterans, Gulf War veterans, and our current veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan have been left unemployed, resulting in homelessness, addictions and suicide.

Is this how the American public treats its wounded warriors and heroes of the battlefield? We are capable of doing so much better, and there is much work left to be done.

Our past haunts us, but it also is a sign that things can improve. After all, we fought against tyranny time and time again. Our fight for our civil rights continues.

Greg Hitchcock, a guest columnist, lives in Williamstown, Mass. He is a disabled Army veteran diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is the author of the book "Schizophrenia in the Army."



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