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Does the medical model of mental health really reduce stigma?

There’s a piece in the Telegraph today suggesting that depression and migraine may share the same gene and scientists hope this may lead to more effective treatments as a result. This is interesting in itself, of course, but what caught my eye was a quote later in the article:

“Half the battle with treating depression is getting people to overcome the stigma of mental illness. if it is linked to migraines they may begin to understand it better as a physical condition.”

It appears to have become a general assumption that by proving mental health problems are akin to physical health problems then stigma will necessarily fall.

However, I posted a couple of days ago about a piece in the New York Times on the Americanisation of mental illness, which suggested that a biomedical model may increase stigma because it leads people to believe that sufferers’ brains are “more thoroughly broken” than if there symptoms were caused by life events.

I must say I feel more comfortable with the life events approach, as it is more suggestive of the malleable nature of the brain and the prospects for recovery. I think it is also an approach that makes more instinctive sense to people than narratives about genes or chemical imbalances. But then I do work for a social work website!

In any case I think it’s a debate we must have if we are to take further steps forward in tackling stigma.

Simeon Brody

About Simeon Brody

Community Care managing web editor

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3 Responses to Does the medical model of mental health really reduce stigma?

  1. Dina Dawes 11 April , 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    Personally, as someone with a long-term mental health issue, I am much more comfortable with the medical model as it reduces the sense of “weakness” that the average person seems to associate with mental ill health. Too many people still think that someone with a mental health issue should “pull themselves together” or that they are somehow fragile or weak to have “succumbed” to mental illness as a result of things that have happened in their lives (and by implication that they, the observer, wouldn’t have as they are somehow “stronger”, this regardless of the evidence on the incidence of mental ill health). In addition there are many people whose mental ill health has been with them since childhood or adolescence with no identifiable cause, here the medical model of having an identifiable condition separate from their own sense of self makes much more sense as opposed to often being made to feel (by mental health professionals as well as people generally) that they are in some way less than a whole human being, that they are defined by their condition rather than it being just something they have like diabetes. (This also ties into being defined as a vulnerable adult – whilst i strongly support protection for people who are vulnerable, for whatever reason, we must be wary of defining someone as permanently a vulnerable adult by virtue of their mental ill health, regardless of what their situation is – when my medication is working properly and I am well then I am certainly not vulnerable – I hold down a responsible job and manage my life perfectly well – if i have an episode of being unwell, I accept I may be vulnerable at those times, but I would strongly resent being defined as vulnerable!) However well intentioned, the social or life events model leaves open the door to the feeling both in the patient and in the public generally that their mental ill health is somehow their fault – yes I know this isn’t what the model is saying, but its how the lay person (and even some professionals) interpret it at an almost subconscious level. Something about the language used links into a deep rooted human tendency to blame people for any illness they may have, how much more so if the model being used can be distorted to the “tabloid headline” view of “mentally ill = weakminded, can’t cope with normal life”. I know my illness is not my fault, that I’m not weaker than the average person, that I haven’t somehow failed because I’ve “given in” to it. Convincing everyone else of this is a battle I’ve being fighting for 20 years. The medical model, with my usual analogy to diabetes, generally produces some degree of understanding. The life events approach seems to me to take us two steps backwards.

  2. james mc dermott 11 April , 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    I was very interested in this particular article because there was so many similarities to my own situation.

    I also hold down a full time job and have had a prolonged historical impairment with my Mental Health.

    I am much the same as Dina I can function at the highest level and the following day my impairment may not allow me to function very well or at the same high level.

    However as a disabled person I have a very different model that moves away from the Medical Model and the Social Model of Disability.

    In order to assert my position I take this standpoint.

    I am a disabled person, my impairment is no different to any other disabled person, there are days I may function better than others,this situation applies to people with Epilepsy, Diabetes,these impairments do not make those people any less/more vulnerable than mine,so if we buy into equality we are the same.

    My model is the Affirmative Model of Disabilty.

    That means you do not treat me any better/less than any other disabled person or non disabled person, we are all human beings with the same human rights.

    Also I feel we need to move away from the words like Patient, Mentally ill, there could be a new preferred language put through the media, the same way we tackled racsism.

    Its not rocket science to move this forward we the service users need to take control away from the policy makers and the gate keepers of the cash and take control as others have demostrated through the disabilty movement.

    I hope this adds to the feedback.

  3. anna smith 11 April , 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    What evidence is there to suggest that the medical model reduces stigma to those suffering from a mental illness. Does the medical model really provide meaning to sufferers and their families.