There's no question that there is plenty of stigma against mental illness in Western societies, and that the whole ethical approach to helping people with mental illness is profoundly affected by the existence of stigma. However, it is very difficult to get clear answers to central questions about stigma, such as whether stigma is getting less now that we have a better understanding of mental illness, whether stigma for some forms of mental illness is greater than for others, whether stigma against people with mental illness is greater than that against people with other sorts of illness, how best to protect people from stigma, and how best to reduce stigmatizing attitudes. There are also conceptual questions of what counts as stigma or prejudice that need to be addressed for the study of stigma to be satisfactory.
There's been a great deal of research into stigma in the last few decades, and there have been initiatives to reduce the stigma of mental illness by many different organizations. Yet for those who are not familiar with the literature, it is hard to know what this research has shown. There have been recent books on the topic. The World Psychiatric Association recently released a report on reducing the stigma of mental illness, which was a useful compendium, and Stephen Hinshaw has recently written a discussion of mental illness stigma. The book under review, On the Stigma of Mental Illness, published in 2005, is a collection of articles edited by Patrick Corrigan. Corrigan is the principal researcher at the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research and has devoted his work to rehabilitation and fighting stigma. The papers are by researchers in the Chicago area giving an overview of the research in the area in 15 chapters. The first two chapters give a very broad summary of the field and discuss the various methods available to study stigma. Then the second, largest, section of the book addresses different approaches: first person accounts, social psychology, sociology, a social-cognitive model, the dangerousness of people with mental illness, the relation between stigma and holding mentally ill people criminally responsible for their actions, the role of the police, and substance abuse. The third section looks at some ways to reduce the stigmatizing attitudes towards mental illness, and there is a short conclusion.
The book is an excellent resource for those looking to understand the current research. Each chapter has many pages of references. The writing style is reasonably clear, and although there is a great deal of reference to different theories, one does not need to be an expert in psychology to understand the chapters. Each chapter has a conclusion that summarizes the main findings. The book takes a compassionate approach yet is also ready to admit that the problem is complex. There are reasons why people are prejudiced against those with mental illness, and these can sustain the stigmatizing attitudes, despite efforts to fight the stigma. Based on their experience, , the authors offer hope that it is possible to make progress against stigma.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.