Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mental Illness Myths and the Media

media mental illness myth stigma
Media portrayals of mental illness propagate prevailing myths and increase associated stigma.

Media and Stigma

Mass media – TV, cinema and newspaper – are the primary source of mental health information for the general public. The mentally ill are usually shown in poor light; and images of unkempt, violent and dangerous men predominate. This greatly affects the public’s view of the mentally ill, causing them to fear, avoid or discriminate against people with mental illness. This is even true for TV programs and stories for children. From an early age mental illness is seen as less desirable than other illnesses.

Negative images such as these affect those with mental illness, damaging their confidence and self-esteem. It makes them more isolated and withdrawn and they are more likely to stay away from therapy. In one study, as many as 50% of patients reported that a negative media portrayal had a negative impact on their illness, with 34% saying that it directly led to an increase in depression and anxiety.

Government policies are also affected by prejudiced media  portrayals of mental illness. Since people with mental illness are seen as anti-social, prone to violence and a potential danger to society, government policies tend to restrict and isolate instead of being more broad-based.

5 Media Myths on Mental Illness

Myth 1 – People with mental illness are violent and unstable
Almost two-thirds of all stories about the mentally ill in both the news and entertainment media focus on violence. While it can happen, most violent crimes are in fact committed by people without mental illness. But a crime committed by a person with mental illness is blown out of proportion by the media instead of being seen as something rare and out of the ordinary. Studies in fact indicate that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence rather than the offenders.
Myth 2 – They do not get better and treatment is ineffective
The truth is that even severe psychiatric disorders can be treated effectively and people can lead normal lives at work, at home and in the community. While treatment of psychiatric disorders has evolved, the media continues to show outdated practices. This highly inaccurate portrayal often prevents both the mentally ill and their families from seeking treatment.
Myth 3 – Mental health professionals are evil, mentally unstable, or unethical
The diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders requires patience, skill and comprehensive evaluation. Mental health care professionals spend years in acquiring the qualifications and training required. Yet media portrayals undermine the integrity of these professionals. This further discourages people who are already hesitant to seek treatment.
Myth 4 – Teenagers with mental illness are just going through a phase
This encourages parents of teenagers to ignore symptoms as something that teenagers will outgrow. Movie portrayals of the teenager as a ‘rebellious free spirit’ further glamorises it in the eyes of the teen. The truth is that the onset of many serious psychiatric illnesses is in adolescence or early adulthood and early treatment offers the best outcomes.
Myth 5 – There is a genius behind every mental illness
While some people with mental illness are undoubtedly gifted, a vast majority of people with mental illness are ordinary individuals who want to get on with their lives and work productively. This caution is specially true for parents of children and adolescents; who view the role of the therapist as one who will unlock the hidden genius in their child. These unrealistic expectations put unnecessary pressure on children, often leading to a relapse; or a loss of faith in the treating clinician.
Sympathetic but exaggerated media portrayals may do more harm than good. Simple achievements need to be highlighted just as much. As an example, while the media annually highlights the success of children with physical disabilities in the board exams, yet no story deals with the successes of those with children struggling against schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Sharing such stories will increase awareness among the public about how regular treatment and supportive therapy can help a child return to normal functioning.

The media’s defence is that the public is not interested in watching something dull and boring, and that they need to dramatize and exaggerate portrayals. However, authentic stories of mental illness have heartbreak, drama, humour and everything in between. Sensitive and accurate portrayals by the media will go a long way in removing the stigma and isolation associated with mental illness, bring the ill into the ambit of treatment, and improve their integration into society. This level of reporting can only be  reached with considerable effort. We need to understand the media are geared towards sensationalism, and the facts regarding mental illness and the people affected by them are more nuanced.

  1. Dara Roth Edney. Mass media and mental illness: a literature review. Canadian Mental Health Association. 2004. Accessed 21-Sep-2015
  2. Murphy NA1, Fatoye F, Wibberley C. The changing face of newspaper representations of the mentally ill. J Ment Health. 2013 Jun;22(3):271-82. doi: 10.3109/09638237.2012.734660. Epub 2013 Jan 16.
  3. Patrick W Corrigan and Amy C Watson. Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. 2002 Feb; 1(1): 16–20.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Treat schizophrenia even if your teenager refuses

schizophrenia treatment in teenagers
Treat schizophrenia as you would any other serious medical illness in your teenager

"My 18yr son is aggressive, hearing voices, and not sleeping."
"Since the last two months he is not attending college. He talks to himself in his room and is not going out with his friends."
"He feels he is being tracked through the TV and yesterday assaulted his mother when she put it on."
"We tried taking him to our doctor but he refuses saying there is nothing wrong with him."
This is a common introduction to the more severely ill teenagers presenting at Pathfinder Clinic.

Why teenagers with schizophrenia refuse to see a psychiatrist 

Teenagers refuse to see a psychiatrist for illness related and personal reasons

Illness related factors

Schizophrenia is a brain disease. Your teenager has difficulties recognising his own symptoms. In schizophrenia there are changes in brain structure, chemistry and functioning. The individual is unable to recognise the problems in thinking, and perception. They hear voices threatening harm to themselves and their families. The  same voices command them not to see the doctor. Reality is distorted and they are unable to correct it through feedback from others. Your teenager perceives this distorted internal image of the world as the real one. They attribute their problems to the external environment. Technically this is termed as a lack of insight. The disease process prevents them from seeing these distortions as an illness. Because of the illness they refuse to see the doctor or take medications.

Personal reasons

Many adolescents refuse or drop out of treatment due to stigma of mental illness. They have high levels of self-stigma. They believe that schizophrenia is a result of a laziness, weakness or incompetence. This belief is reinforced by parents, society and friends who give advice like
"You really need to get your act together"
"You better snap out of it or people will think you’re crazy."
So in their mind your adolescent rationalises the problems as being outside themselves
 – "You won’t let me do what I want and now you are trying to label me as crazy, you need therapy, you go to the doctor."
Taking medication is seen as an acknowledgement of their own failure. To the teenager denial of illness and rejection of medical care appears more acceptable.


Parents of an adolescent with schizophrenia are working through their own public stigma. They may see schizophrenia as occurring due to faulty parenting and lack of control. They struggle against the stereotype of their son or daughter as incompetent and requiring supervision. They mistakenly fear they will need to protect the teenager from being labelled and shunned socially. In their mind going to the doctor will accelerate the stigmatising process. So the symptoms are ignored or controlled to the greatest extent possible. This may include keeping the teenager out of school or college for months until the exams are due. When the illness makes life unbearable at home they seek medical help. This is often in an atmosphere of shame and a sense of failure. Many families are unable to overcome these prejudices. They delay treatment for decades until they realise there may be no one to care for their son or daughter when they are gone.

The advisers and 'well wishers' of teenagers and their families are a third set of influencers whose lack of specific knowledge can reinforce self-stigma. Statements like
"Send him to us for a few weeks and he’ll be OK"
"Avoid ‘psychiatric’ medications because they are addictive"
"Medicines will cause permanent damage"
add further obstacles to the path to standard and adequate treatment.

When the adolescent is functioning well on the medication these misinformed 'well wishers' are the ones who advise
"What do you need the medicine for? I can see nothing wrong with you"
and set the stage for relapse and refusal to meet with the doctor when the illness relapses
 – "Chacha said there is nothing wrong with me, why are you trying to label me?"

What to do?

Refusing help for schizophrenia is not an option.
  • We have already seen what can be done to get a reluctant patient to see the psychiatrist
  • However, for schizophrenia, more urgent measures may be required.  Involuntary admission to a mental health facility for initiation of treatment may be needed. This is especially so when the adolescent is violent, suicidal, using addictive substances, or repeatedly missing from home. Involuntary admission helps in the same way that it helps get your adolescent admitted to hospital if they had dengue fever even if they did not want it. There are provisions in the Mental Health Act to ensure this is done in safety with respect for your adolescent’s rights. After they receive treatment and brain function returns to normal they will thank you. For they will be relieved from the terrors of reality distortions and desperation of suicide thoughts. 
  • Once treatment is initiated ensure they take medications every day as prescribed. Don’t take on any other responsibility regarding the medication. Leave that as a dialogue between your teenager and their psychiatrist. Just make sure it continues to happen.

Why teenagers with schizophrenia must get treatment even if  they don't want it

Brain cell death

Schizophrenia is associated with death of brain cells and shrinking of brain volume. The longer the duration of untreated symptoms the greater the toxic “dose” of delusions and hallucinations delivered to the developing adolescent brain. Delusions and hallucinations are merely the tip of the iceberg – underlying brain changes have already set in. When treatments are delayed for more than a week the illness becomes even more severe and impairing. The person is less likely to recover, and is at greater risk for addiction to cannabis and other substances. These negative changes related to delay persist even after a year when treatment is finally started.

Academic impact

Schizophrenia symptoms make it difficult for the teenager to attend school or college. There is difficulty focusing. In the earliest stages there is an accelerated deterioration in academic performance. This usually takes place in late adolescence. Research suggests this may be a marker for schizophrenia onset. Deteriorating academic performance is seen even before social or other symptoms to appear. Unfortunately this is the very stage of life at which academic performance is critical and shapes career choices for adult employment. Many formerly brilliant students are anguished when they are suddenly struggling to even pass their exams. In fact studies have shown schizophrenia is more likely to affect those who excel at academics, making it all the more devastating. Missing or failing in board exams has an adverse impact that timely treatment can obviate.


  1. Compton MT, Gordon TL, Weiss PS, Walker EF. The "doses" of initial, untreated hallucinations and delusions: a proof-of-concept study of enhanced predictors of first-episode symptomatology and functioning relative to duration of untreated psychosis. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Nov;72(11):1487-93. doi: 10.4088/JCP.09m05841yel. Epub 2011 Jan 11.
  2. Fung KM, Tsang HW, Corrigan PW. Self-stigma of people with schizophrenia as predictor of their adherence to psychosocial treatment. Psychiatr Rehabil J. 2008 Fall;32(2):95-104. doi: 10.2975/32.2.2008.95.104.
  3. Guo X, Li J, Wei Q, Fan X, Kennedy DN, Shen Y, Chen H, Zhao J. Duration of untreated psychosis is associated with temporal and occipitotemporal gray matter volume decrease in treatment naïve schizophrenia. PLoS One. 2013 Dec 31;8(12):e83679. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083679. eCollection 2013.
  4. Harrigan SM, McGorry PD, Krstev H. Does treatment delay in first-episode psychosis really matter? Psychol Med. 2003 Jan;33(1):97-110.
  5. Karlsson JL. Psychosis and academic performance. Br J Psychiatry. 2004 Apr;184:327-9.
  6. Strauss GP1, Allen DN, Miski P, Buchanan RW, Kirkpatrick B, Carpenter WT Jr. Differential patterns of premorbid social and academic deterioration in deficit and nondeficit schizophrenia. Schizophr Res. 2012 Mar;135(1-3):134-8. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2011.11.007. Epub 2011 Nov 29.
  7. Penttilä M, Jääskeläinen E, Haapea M, Tanskanen P, Veijola J, Ridler K, Murray GK, Barnes A, Jones PB, Isohanni M, Koponen H, Miettunen J. Association between duration of untreated psychosis and brain morphology in schizophrenia within the Northern Finland 1966 Birth Cohort.Schizophr Res. 2010 Nov;123(2-3):145-52. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2010.08.016. Epub 2010 Sep 15.
Want more references? View my collection, "Teenagers with schizophrenia need treatment even if they don't want it" from PubMed

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tattoos - true love will never fade

sarus crane symbol of true love
What is the motivation or psychology behind obtaining a tattoo? Tattooing as a form of decorative body art has moved out of the realm of cults and organisations into mainstream society. It is increasingly common to see patients sporting a new tattoo. "Just like that, doctor. My friends were getting one". The Pune magazines reflect this new found art form through full page articles every other week. Driving through the some parts of Pune takes you past at least three studios specialising in the art of tattooing.

Here we are concerned with the psychological aspects of tattooing. As compared to body-piercing, a tattoo is relatively permanent and more deliberate operation. For the moment set aside doubts over hygiene, HIV, and hepatitis.

10 reasons people get a tattoo

  1. Beauty, art, and fashion. Tattoos are a means of decorating the body with a permanent fashion accessory. Many tattooed individuals refer to their tattoos as a piece of art. 
  2. Individuality. A tattoo fulfils the desire to create a distinct self-identity. The symbols or words embellishing the skin creates a special message that distinguishes the person from others. The individual gains a sense of control over their appearance and identity. We see this especially in teenagers brought in by their parents.
  3. Personal narrative. Women recovering from abuse create a new understanding of the injured part of the body. They reclaim possession through the deliberate and painful procedure of body modification. Tattoos have a self-healing effect in this reclamation of the body. 
  4. Physical endurance. For some tattoos are a statement about testing their threshold for pain endurance.  
  5. Group affiliations and commitment. Body ornaments are a permanent sign of love and commitment. The wish to belong to a certain community or to show affiliation to a particular group is a common reason for getting a tattoo. 
  6. Resistance. Tattoos are a provocative protest against parents and society, especially in college students. Body modification has long been associated with subcultural movements and criminal tendencies. Until recently most studies on tattooing were done on prison populations.
  7. Spirituality and cultural tradition. Body modifications emphasise personal affiliation to cultures and their spirituality. Esoteric symbols that convey special meaning are tattooed as a permanent reminder.
  8. Addiction. Tattoos and piercings possess an addictive character through the release of endorphins. These substances are released in brain areas in association with painful penetration of the body.
  9. Sexual motivation. Tattooing is a form of expressing sexual affectations and of emphasising ones own sexuality. 
  10. No specific reason. A tattoo may be obtained impulsively on the spur of the moment. Some individuals may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while acquiring their piece of body art.

Reasons people have a tattoo removed

People are mostly satisfied with the actual design of their tattoo.

Most want their tattoo removed for personal reasons. This occurs when the quest for uniqueness turns into stigma, negative comments, and clothes problems. Poor decision making and subsequent personal regret seem to be frequent motivations for tattoo removal.

An improved sense of self and maturity is another factor. Especially for those who obtained their tattoos for internal expectations of self-identity at an early age. Many are still trying to dissociate from the past and improve self-identity. More than 40% of persons who choose a tattoo to feel unique are disillusioned when their unique product loses its luster and excitement.

Professional/social reasons account for another third of those motivated for tattoo removal. A new job or career is a major motivation. Negative workplace attitudes toward tattoos and perceived interference for a tattooed individual’s achievement is common. There is a perception of lowered credibility, competence, and sociability that diminishes the image of tattoo wearer in the workplace.

The possession risks are more for women than for men. More than two thirds of those seeking tattoo removal are women. Society support for women with tattoos is not as strong as for men. Strong tattoo support from significant others and friends is counterbalanced by negative remarks about the tattoos from fathers, physicians, and the public. Negative responses are also documented among career-oriented women with tattoos. Women still need to deliberately think about controlling the body placement of their tattoos to avoid the possession risks and to increase their own psychological comfort.

  1. Armstrong ML, Roberts AE, Koch JR, Saunders JC, Owen DC, Anderson RR. Motivation for contemporary tattoo removal: a shift in identity. Arch Dermatol. 2008 Jul;144(7):879-84.
  2. Silke Wohlrab, Jutta Stahl, Peter M. Kappeler. Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image 4 (2007) 87–95.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Discrimination of psychiatrically ill persons by hospitals

Healthcare discrimination of mentally ill persons
Discrimination of mentally ill persons by hospitals
A young woman with psychiatric illness was refused admission at a leading tertiary care hospital in Pune. The reason - “mentally unstable patients are known to cause harm not only to themselves but to others as well. The hospital lacks facilities and infrastructure for catering to psychiatric patients.” A similar unwritten policy of denying inpatient care on grounds of psychiatric illness exists in at least one other large corporate hospital in Pune.

We have already stressed the importance of access to healthcare for persons with mental illness. We will now further explore the stereotype of harm in mental illness. The stigma associated with this stereotype has an adverse impact on timely delivery of healthcare to persons with psychiatric illness.

Are mentally ill persons likely to harm other hospital inpatients?

Hospital and healthcare settings have the highest levels workplace related violence across all industry sectors (CDC 2002).  The place where patient perpetrated violence is most likely to occur is the Emergency or Casualty department not the wards (Farooq 2009). Patients of all categories mostly attack staff or junior doctors - the ones they are in regular and direct contact with. In most cases violence is perpetrated by arrogant patient attendants not the patients themselves, whatever their diagnosis. For the rest violence is a result of unacceptable staff behaviour, and dissatisfied patients or attendants. It is rare for patients of any diagnosis to physically attack and harm each other in a hospital. Even in acute inpatient psychiatry units violence towards other patients or staff is less than 3% of total incidents of violence (Biancosino 2009). So much for psychiatric illness being “known to cause harm”.

Are patients with psychiatric illnesses the only ones that harm other patients? At the height of the swine-flu scare in 2009 no patient suspected of having the disease was denied treatment or admission. Yet swine-fly is known to be highly contagious and lethal. Special protocols and facilities were drawn up and earmarked overnight. So the potential for harm is not the overriding factor in denial of treatment.

Patients with psychiatric illness require minimal investigation, and respond rapidly to cheap and effective medication. Return on investment may be what it is all about. Psychiatrically ill pateintsdo not make much money for a hospital. It is more lucrative to provide skewed facilities for a liver transplant that would require weeks of ICU care, extensive investigation and invasive procedures. It would also make news for all the right reasons.

Mental illness accounts for 80-90% of completed suicides. Serious suicide attempts by poisoning or jumping result in emergency hospital admissions. Treatments would entail stay in the Intensive Care Unit, utilisation of the Operation Theatre, mechanical ventilation, and extensive monitoring and investigations. All this translates into large cash transactions over a short period of time. No hospital administrator would deny admission to these critically ill patients - ethical considerations, policy and stigma not withstanding.

Is it really possible to exclude patients with psychiatric illness from the hospital healthcare system?

The dichotomy between soma and psyche, physical and mental is artificial. This was formally enunciated in Para 1 of the WHOs Alma-Ata declaration (1978) and is the accepted definition of health for medical students since decades. Psychiatric and somatic illnesses coexist with and impact eachother. Ignoring this interaction is adversely affecting the outcomes of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease. The World Mental Health Day 2010 document specifically evaluates the evidence and stresses the urgent need to integrate mental heatlhcare for these chronic illnesses which account for 60% of the worlds deaths.

Walk into any hospital ICU and you will see at least one delirious patient strapped to the bed with physical restraints. Psychological aspects of critical illness are given the short shrift only because the mindset is one of discrimination and disrespect for the individual. Psychiatric and physical health problems do not exist in isolation. Their physical basis and vice versa cannot be excluded by artificial dichotomies.

Is it desirable to treat persons with mental illness in a general hospital setting?

Integration of mental healthcare delivery with existing facilities is a major thrust of the WHO (2008). Hospitals need to provide an accessible and acceptable location for treatment of acute exacerbations of mental health disorders in the same way that they currently do for physical health disorders. This would also enable access to services for physical health problems that arise during the inpatient stays of persons with mental health problems.

Deinstitutionalisation of psychiatric and mental health care has been stressed as a human right since the mid 20th century. A step in this direction for Pune's hospitals would be to draw up and implement guidelines to prevent and manage hospital violence. These guidelines already exist (CDC 2002, OSHA 2004).

  1. Biancosino B, Delmonte S, Grassi L, Santone G, Preti A, Miglio R, de Girolamo G; PROGRES-Acute Group. Violent behavior in acute psychiatric inpatient facilities: a national survey in Italy. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2009 Oct;197(10):772-82.
  2. CDC. Violence - occupational hazards in hospitals.  DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2002–101. April 2002
  3. J Farooq, A Mustafa, D Singh, GH Yattoo, A Tabish, GJ Qadiri. Violence in hospitals. Journal of the Academy of Hospital Administration, Volume 21, No. 1 & 2 Jan-June & July-December 2009; 16-20
  4. Occupational and Safety Health Administration. Guidelines for preventing workplace violence for health care and social service workers. 2004. Publication no. OSHA 3148-01R
  5. Soliman AE, Reza H. Risk factors and correlates of violence among acutely ill adult psychiatric inpatients. Psychiatr Serv. 2001 Jan;52(1):75-80.
  6. World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH). Mental health and chronic physical illness - the need for continued and integrated care. World mental health day. 10 October 2010.
  7. World Health Organisation (WHO) Declaration of Alma-Ata. International Conference on Primary Health Care, Alma-Ata, USSR, 6-12 September 1978
  8. WHO/Wonca.  Integrating mental health into primary care: a global perspective. World Health Organisation and World Organization of Family Doctors (Wonca). 2008.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How to get somebody to consult a psychiatrist

Some excerpts (reproduced with permission) from responses to my last post.

"My Dad was a closet alcoholic"
"...asking for help on alcohol consumption for my friend's son who will soon turn 19 years...parents now try to monitor his timings, where he is but he is slippery and generally seems to be ahead of them."
People may know that a loved one requires help with an alcohol habit or other behavioural or emotional problem. The reluctance to seek help is mainly due to the stigma attached and the individuals lack of insight (blindness to the presence of the illness). How does the family or society (a neighbour) get the person to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional?

Individual choice and potential for harm are in the balance
I've listed out some methods  - by no means exhaustive - used successfully by other caregivers. They are in descending order of individual choice and autonomy. Use your discretion.

How to get a person to consult a psychiatrist

  • Talk to the person then hold them to their word. If the person asks for 'another chance', get an undertaking for consultation if the problem recurs.
  • If the problem is with a child talk it over with the person who can veto the consultation (your spouse, your mother-in-law). The child will exploit any lack of consensus.
  • Put across the consultation as a confidential discussion with a neutral person.
  • Focus on the physical complaints - sleeplessness, loss of appetite, fatigue. Fix a consultation for these "stress related problems".
  • Seek help from a person they trust. This may be an uncle, a grandparent or daughter-in-law who may not be aware of the problem but would be willing to intervene for the benefit of their loved one.
  • Get the family physician to refer. Physicians may prefer not to go in for a discussion on the need for psychiatric referral. Letting the physician know in advance will facilitate referral.
  • Use coercion. If the person is still refusing to consider an evaluation threaten withdrawal of some support for which they are dependent on you (you should be prepared to follow through on this). Play on their insecurities (eg. to divulge information to a colleague or boss).
  • If there is any kind of self-harm be firm and seek an urgent consultation
  • In case of escalations with violence and agitation seek admission to a mental health centre. There are provisions for this under the Mental Health Act.
Remember, untreated psychiatric illness will increase stigma

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why would a mother burn her daughter?

A family tragedy was played out through a small article in the Pune news. In a fit of rage a mentally ill woman set her daughter alight while she was asleep. The narrative was short and the item tucked into one of the inner pages under a largish headline.
 This was the reason - the why - mental illness
World Health Report 2001
 A glib explanation for a horrific event lays the entire burden of its causation at the doors of a mental health disorder. The World Health Organisation  (WHO) has estimated that one in four persons will have a mental health disorder at some stage of life .

Violence is rarely a manifestation of mental illness
In this rare cause of burning (mental illness), the burning of her daughter is an indicator of the severity of the mother's mental illness. Yet society, of which this news item is a barometer, has unquestioningly accepted mental illness as a sufficient cause. In a nation with about 0.48 mental health workers of any kind  for every 100,000 people, a woman who had previously managed to access mental health care slips through the organisational net and goes on to seriously injure her own daughter. A family that had against overwhelming odds obtained mental health care for a loved one could not mobilise the resources to access it again when her illness escalated. Ease of access to mental health care is crucial. Why?
Common mental illnesses are effectively treated with medication
Most people with mental illness achieve control over their behaviour and impulses. The cost of treatment with standard and effective medication is less than Rs5-10/day. The social costs of mental illness is the major barrier, keeping those needing care from seeking it. The other barrier is institutional, keeping those seeking care from getting it. This mother could not cut through the social and institutional barriers to obtain that care. That is why a mother burnt her daughter.