What was the reason for that? And why do tattoos exist?
Dennis: Well, tattooing is a rather bizarre cultural past time. In the last half century or so there have been various arguments that slavery was a great benefit to humanity, and tattooing is part of that tradition. It was a sign of pride to be a slave: being on the receiving end of some sort of indignity, especially sexual. It was also a form of self-expression to have a tattoo.
Sasha: There are tattoos that are really bad. So there was definitely a difference in the aesthetics, especially with white people.
Dennis: Yes, but there are tattoos that are really good too, particularly in some European countries. But when it comes to tattoos for African people, they probably feel much better about it. It seems to be much less stigmatizing to be tattooed, which does seem to be how it’s done.
How do we know that?
So there’s no evidence that people with tattoos and people without tattoos have higher-than-average rates of schizophrenia, schizophrenia or any other mental illness. And that’s probably because people in general don’t talk about having a mental illness, and most people would consider it very shameful to admit to having a mental illness.
But maybe not stigma alone. Researchers have found evidence that stigma is a lot stronger for African Americans than it is for whites. So there’s at least a certain stigma that seems to prevent people from having tattoos, which does seem to be a much stronger deterrent than stigma about being gay or black.
What can we do about it?
Well, what we’re probably most worried about is making sure that, if someone’s having a negative experience, they’re getting help, and then that individual gets a second chance at life. That goes back to the idea of social justice, which I think was an enormous factor for me growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.
Sasha: My question isn’t a question, it’s something for you to answer, and I’m really excited to hear more about it. You’re such an engaging personality. Does this knowledge give you a motivation to help other people who are suffering?
Dennis: You know, yeah. I think having a higher-than-average risk of mental illness is something that is important. There have been studies that looked at whether people with higher-than-average schizophrenia risk—and so a lot of people are unaware