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Destigmatizing Mental Illness

In David Auburn’s play Proof, I think mental health is the most important theme of the story as it presents how misunderstood people can be when it comes to mental health. When we think about mental health, it can be a complex tightrope to cross because of the negative stigma that’s attached to it.

According to an article published by the American Psychiatric Association, mental health is stigmatized into the three categories, i.e. public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma. Public stigma, “involves the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness.” Self-stigma, “refers to the negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that people with mental illness have about their own condition.” Institutional stigma, “is more systemic, involving policies of government and private organizations that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. Examples include lower funding for mental illness research or fewer mental health services relative to other health care.”

In the case of Robert and Catherine, the mental illness they allegedly share is both public and self-stigmatized. A major example that supports this would be the argument that Catherine and Claire have the morning after a party. I think this argument between the two sisters is the most important one in the story because both Robert and Catherine are publicly stigmatized by Claire regarding their mental stability. One example would be Claire’s statement about how their dad should have been institutionalized by saying, “He was ill. He should have been in a full-time professional-care situation.” Catherine replies defending her dad saying, “He didn’t belong in the nuthouse.” Another example is the one where Catherine asks Claire if she thinks that she’s like their dad and Claire replies, “I think you have some of his talent and some of his tendency toward…instability.”

In both examples, Claire stigmatizes Robert and Catherine by saying that Robert was crazy, and that Catherine was following in his footsteps. Whereas Catherine was saying that their dad was sick and needed nurturing at home. The next example, would be the last scene of the play where Catherine stigmatizes herself as she’s talking to one of Robert’s college students Hal, and she expresses her fear of becoming her dad by saying, “I’m…afraid I’m like my dad.” In this example, Catherine self-stigmatizes against herself by implying that she’s incompetent and unstable and is turning into her dad.

Another example would be the first scene of Catherine and Robert has when they’re having a conversation and towards the end Robert states that this is a good sign by saying, “Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts.” He continues, “They’ve got better things to do. Take it from me. A very good sign that you’re crazy is an inability to ask the question “Am I crazy?”” Afterwards, Catherine tells her father that he’s crazy due to him admitting that he's crazy. In this example, Catherine public stigmatizes her father due to his statements contradicting each other, and that creates the impression that he’s mentally incompetent.

Another example would be in Act Two where Catherine tells Claire and Hal that she wrote the proof. Hal explains how Catherine might be delusional by saying, “Your dad might have written it and explained it to you later. I’m not saying he did, I’m just saying there’s no proof that you wrote this.” Catherine defends herself saying, “Of course there isn’t, but come on! He didn’t do this, he couldn’t have. He didn’t do any mathematics at all for years. Even in the good years he couldn’t work: you know that. You’re supposed to be a scientist.” In this example, Hal public stigmatizes Catherine by discrediting her capabilities of creating such brilliant work due to him believing that she’s delusional and mentally incompetent. Catherine attempts to prove her competence by explaining how she did the work during the years her dad was inactive.

So, what are some ways that we can fix this issue to destigmatize mental illness? I think the first step we should take should be changing the language of how we refer to people who don’t think clearly like everyone else. According to a website known as The Rolling Explorer, one of the proper terms to use for someone instead of ‘crazy’ would be ‘irrational’. Another solution can be found in an article published by the American Psychological Association, in which one of the suggestions states, “The Department of Health and Human Services take the lead on the stigma reduction initiative. Although several government agencies have anti-stigma programs, each has limited resources and its own ideas about best practices.”

To conclude, I think the theme of mental health and the way it was portrayed as a social issue of it being misunderstood and stigmatized by society was done well by this play. You can see how the subject of mental health can be villainized by examining the lives of two people and the interactions they have with everyone else. You can also see how mental illness can be self-villainized as well due to people seeing themselves as a dangerous harm to themselves and others. The Rolling Explorer explains the consequences of what happens when you villainize mental illness saying, “Because of those prejudices and misunderstandings, many people are afraid to go public with their illness or seek help.” They also revealed a consequential statistic from the year of 2013, in which they explained the consequences for people who were untreated for substance abuse by saying, “Untreated disorders led to an estimated $417 billion in annual costs related to lost productivity, crime and health care.” It’s important to humanize mental illness to encourage people to seek help and receive proper treatment. I admire this theatrical play for the way it handled this topic, and I believe that the play should be viewed more by many so that people can think of mental health from a different perspective and develop a broader understanding of mental health awareness.

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