Why I belong at John Jay: Mental health stigma is a social justice issue

Stop the Stigma

By Philip Yanos – I am sitting around a large table at a National Institute of Mental Health grant review meeting and am asked to introduce myself to my colleagues. I lean in to a microphone and state my affiliation at John Jay College, City University of New York, and my area of research: “stigma and its impact on the community participation of people with severe mental illness.”

During a break, one of my colleagues says, “I heard that you are at John Jay and do stigma research. I know that John Jay is focused on criminal justice issue—how did you wind up there?”

I encounter these types of questions all the time, from people inside and outside of the field. As a social scientist, I understand where they are coming from: labels have a powerful effect on people’s expectations, and John Jay has very distinctly labeled itself as a “College of Criminal Justice.”

I also know that people who are labeled are impacted by the expectations that are associated with them—myself included. Sometimes I do find myself questioning my identity as a stigma researcher who works at John Jay.  How do I fit in with this place?

My doubts are usually cleared away when I walk into the New Building and see prominently displayed statements of John Jay’s mission: “educating for justice.”  And when I’m riding the elevator up to the psychology department on the 10th floor, I see further statements hammering the point home: “This is the year for social justice. This is the place for social justice.”

I belong at John Jay because the continued existence of mental health stigma in our society is an issue of social injustice. As I discuss in my forthcoming book Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential (Cambridge University Press), stigma exerts an effect, above and beyond that of symptoms, that diminishes opportunities for community participation among people diagnosed with severe mental illnesses.

Stigma allows community members to discriminate against, socially reject, or avoid people with mental illnesses, which can limit their opportunities for employment, housing, and social relationships. Stigma also leads governments to enact legal restrictions that impact fundamental rights such as the right to parent and vote. It also makes people with mental illnesses restrict much of their social contact, and to sometimes incorporate negative stereotypes into their identity, resulting in a diminishment of hope and self-esteem.

Much of the current dialogue about stigma focuses on how it can be a barrier to seeking help, but people who have sought help are also very strongly impacted by stigma (sometimes even more so). We need to start talking about stigma as a social justice issue.  We should be linking the fight against mental health stigma to other social movements that have fought (and are still fighting) against oppression, including historically oppressed racial and ethnic groups, people who identify as LGBT, and physically disabled persons.

John Jay is a community comprised of “fierce advocates for justice.” That’s an identity that fits perfectly with my focus on eradicating mental health stigma, and one that I am proud to take on.

Philip Yanos is a Professor of Psychology at John Jay College.

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