Pennsylvania Lawmakers Tackle Mental Health Stigma

Apr 2, 2015

The Pennsylvania House Committee on Human Services heard from mental health workers and advocates Thursday about the challenges faced by those living with mental illness. The main topic was the stigma surrounding mental illness. That stigma, according to each speaker, is a major barrier to health care.

“You don’t want to be labeled as someone who could be dangerous and sadistic, you don’t want to potentially not be able to pass the bar exam or get a job, or you might get fired or you might be denied housing. That’s the stigma that leads to people avoiding seeking treatment,” said Tim Clement, a fellow with the Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation.

Clement said many who have mental illness are discriminated against because of the stigma, and added that there is also an issue of access.

“One form of discrimination that’s very pervasive is insurance companies not offering equal coverage for people with mental health conditions versus patients with physical health conditions,” said Clement.

He and others called on state lawmakers to enforce a federal which mandates that mental health services be fully covered. Plus, Mary Ann Venezia, a Doylestown psychiatrist, said nurses and physicians should stop treating mental illness and substance abuse as separate from physical illness.  

“Mental illness is just that – it is an illness,” said Venezia. “It is not a character flaw or an irresistible impulse to embody the sick role and live off the state. Substance abuse is an illness, not a character flaw or a decision to abdicate responsibility in favor of the high life. Both of these illnesses require and deserve ongoing treatment, no one would choose to be an addict or psychiatric patient any more than one chooses to have diabetes or heart failure.”

Speakers said the stigma can be tackled through the Legislature enforcing equal treatment provisions and through education along with more funding for mental health services.