Mental Illness Stigma in the Media

Recently, the Huffington Post contained an article covering a speech by Presidential candidate Ben Carson, M.D.. Dr. Carson was asked if he believed Muslims who adhere to Sharia Law could participate in a Democratic society and its laws.

Dr. Carson answered, “Only if they are schizophrenic.”

This is not the first time Ben Carson, a well-known neurosurgeon, has used the term “schizophrenia” in a pejorative manner. On October 15, 2015, Dr. Carson was asked about America’s relationship with God and faith. He stated: “So if it’s in our founding documents, it’s in our pledges, in our courts and it’s on our money, but we’re not supposed to talk about it, what in the world is that? In medicine it’s called schizophrenia. And I, for one, am simply not willing to kick God to the curb.”

Actually, Dr. Carson, there is no term in medicine which provides a diagnostic term for separation of church and state. Or to address the experiences of one type of group and their ability to embrace another society’s government structure.

Because those are not, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, medical issues. Or psychological issues.

What is schizophrenia, then?

Schizophrenia is a serious disorder of the brain. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, schizophrenia is chronic, debilitating, and complex. Its diagnosis is also complex, and physicians, psychologists, and psychotherapists spend years learning about symptoms, their range of severity, and how to diagnose and treat this condition. For example, part of the diagnostic process involves assessing for positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms, as follows:

Positive symptoms: “Positive” symptoms are psychotic behaviors not generally seen in others without the diagnosis. Symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Thought disorders
  • Movement disorders

Negative symptoms: “Negative” symptoms are associated with the absence of the usual feelings, emotions, and behaviors. These include:

  • “Flat affect” (flattened tone, expression, emotion)
  • Decrease in feelings of pleasure life
  • Difficulty beginning and sustaining activities
  • Reduced speaking

Cognitive symptoms: Cognitive symptoms (memory, thinking, decision-making) can range from subtle to severe. these include:

  • Poor “executive functioning” (taking in information and using it to make appropriate decisions)
  • Trouble focusing, or paying attention
  • Problems with “working memory” (learning information but struggling to be able to use it)

Complex, indeed. No mental health practitioner arrives at a diagnosis of schizophrenia quickly or easily.

I don’t for a moment believe that Dr. Carson is actually diagnosing “Muslims” or “American society” with schizophrenia. However, Dr. Carson was known as one of the country’s top experts on the brain. Prior to becoming an M.D., Dr. Carson graduated from Yale with a degree in Psychology.  He knows what schizophrenia is, how it affects lives, and what it does to the brain. So why does he continue to use “schizophrenia” as a pejorative term in his speeches?

Stigma is a real issue with regard to mental illness. Even though millions of American live with some type of mental illness diagnosis, misinformation abounds. How often do you hear “I changed my mind…I’m so bipolar!” or I hate my job. My boss gives me PTSD.” Schizophrenia in particular, is greatly misunderstood. The term carries with it images of danger, potential violence, and rampant hallucinations. Those of us who dedicate our lives to the field of mental health work tirelessly to support our patients in living productive, happy lives, and to raise awareness of mental health.

Ben Carson is certainly not the only public figure to use terms related to mental illness as slurs. However, he is currently in the media spotlight. He has the ability to raise awareness, and as a physician – a brain expert – he certainly has the knowledge. Using a mental health diagnosis as a way to denigrate a person, a group, or a process is wrong. When done by a renowned neurosurgeon, it is unconscionable.

Dr. Carson, please join with us in pledging to stop the stigma of mental illness. An educated man, doctor, and author, you have a multitude of words at your fingertips. Please consider foregoing the “wallop” carried by a word like schizophrenia to fire up your audiences, and instead use a more thoughtful, accurate vocabulary. If you feel someone is being foolish, say so. If describing a dichotomy, call it that. If nothing else, mental health conditions cannot be used as blanket insults, not anymore. Please join us in raising awareness.