Complex Made Simple

Psychiatry expert highlights ways of fighting stigma of mental disorders

World renowned psychiatry expert Professor Norman Sartorius shared his expertise on combating stigmatization (stigma) of people affected with mental illnesses at the Third International Psychiatry Symposium, organized by Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC). The event brought together the world’s leading psychiatry experts and HMC healthcare professionals in discussions focused on mental health services in the region.

During his lecture, Professor Sartorius highlighted that stigma is an age-old phenomena and that each individual should play a role in order to fight stigma to create a better and more inclusive society.
“Stigma means that a person is marked by a mental illness and is wrongly considered to be of no value; he is thought to be incurable and dangerous and this is what makes people reject him,” Professor Sartorius said. “This is the chief obstacle to any development in the field of psychiatry when it comes to the reduction and elimination of stigma that people with mental illnesses face.”

Many individuals who have recently had a mental illness, or are presently experiencing a mental health condition, struggle to function in society as they are often made to feel worthless, ashamed and guilty, and this impedes their diagnosis and treatment process, Professor Sartorius told physicians, psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals attending the Symposium. “The first thing you should do in the fight against stigma of mental illnesses is to ask yourself, ‘Am I also stigmatizing?” Professor Sartorius emphasized. “Have I ever employed a person who has previously had a mental illness? Do I give people who have had a mental disorder as much respect as I give to others?”.

Negative assumptions and stereotypes about mental illnesses have resulted in discrimination of those affected by these illnesses, not just at work and school but also among friends and family. However, stigma can be defeated by bridging the gap between attitude change and behavior change, Professor Sartorius highlighted.

“The notion we have about making people tolerate mental illness is wrong. Tolerance is a passive blindness of those around you, inclusion is much more. We should open our hearts to people affected with mental illnesses so that they feel they are a part of the community they live in,” Professor Sartorius advised.

The significance of communicating with individuals affected by mental health conditions was also emphasized at the lecture. Professor Sartorius shared the findings from several international studies that revealed that social contact has been paramount in bringing about societal behavioral change. “When patients with mental illnesses are provided with the opportunity to speak about their illnesses to other people they feel happy and useful and that is the best way to learn about their illnesses,” Professor Sartorius said.

Professor Sartorius is the President of the Association for the Improvement of Mental Health Programs and was the President of the Association of European Psychiatrists (EAP) until 2001. He was the Director of the Division of Mental Health of the World Health Organization (WHO) from 1977 until 1993. During his tenure at WHO, Professor Sartorius worked on several major international studies on schizophrenia, on depression and on health service delivery. He has published over 400 articles in scientific journals and holds professional appointments at the Universities of London, Prague and Zagreb and many other universities in USA and China.