Mental illness is not shameful, but stigma is. It’s time to end the silence. Our societal ignorance and fear is killing future generations. The solution to ending this stigma is education.
Misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental health are widespread. Despite the existence of effective treatments for mental disorders, there is a belief that they are untreatable or that people with mental disorders are difficult, not intelligent, or incapable of making decisions. This stigma can lead to abuse, rejection and isolation, and exclude people from health care or support.
No one would ever say, “It is just cancer. Get over it.” So why does society stigmatize people who suffer from mental illness? How come when people have a mental illness, society perceives them as if they are monsters? Why can every other organ in the body get sick and receive sympathy except for the brain?
People with mental illnesses are ashamed to divulge anything about their illness because of the negative connotation attached to the words "mental illness".
Society’s stigmatization of mental illness prevents people from advocating for themselves and getting the help they need. It is paradoxical that a society that prizes freedom of speech is also one that silences people when it comes to mental illness.
In order to increase the availability of mental health services, there are 5 key barriers that need to be overcome: the absence of mental health from the public health agenda and the implications for funding; the current organization of mental health services; lack of integration within primary care; inadequate human resources for mental health; and lack of public mental health leadership.
Prevalence of Mental Illness
The suicide rate jumped 24% from 1999 to 2014, according to an April 2016 report from the CDC. Each year more than 41,000 individuals take their own life. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults in the U.S. and the 3rd leading cause of death among people aged 10-24. That is far too significant a number for us to ignore.
Around 20% of the world's children and adolescents have mental disorders or problems. About half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14. Neuropsychiatric disorders are among the leading causes of worldwide disability in young people. Yet, regions of the world with the highest percentage of population under the age of 19 have the poorest level of mental health resources. Most low-and middle-income countries have only one child psychiatrist for every 1 to 4 million people.
Education in School Systems
Society’s stigma towards mental illness has prevented awareness of mental health from being taught in schools, which enhances the impression that mental illness is something to be ashamed of.
Anxiety and depression are affecting kids’ behavior and their ability to learn which can lead to dropping out or home school. Getting resources to these students is essential for them to function in school. National Alliance for Mental Illness is working to get more counselors trained to identify mental health disorders, but it’s not easy. Counselors are often responsible for more than 500 kids and have other duties as well, often including administering state tests.
Health classes cover nutrition and exercise in depth. Mental health is often superficially covered if at all, yet it is just as crucial to one’s health. Students should be taught how to identify when they may be suffering from a mental illness, where to seek help, and how to improve their mental health.
However, depression isn’t just affecting kids facing conditions that have long been associated with poor mental health outcomes. According to the department of Health and Human Services, rates of depression among girls ages 12-17 in 2015 were more than double that of boys. In the U.S., 19.5% of girls experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, while only 5.8% of boys did. Research indicates that cyber-bullying is far more prevalent among girls than boys. Some studies show that girls use mobile phones with texting applications more frequently and intensively. And, problematic mobile phone use in this age group has been linked to depressed mood.
Evidence that technology and online bullying are affecting kids’ mental health as young as fifth grade, particularly girls. Cutting incidents are pretty much weekly at elementary schools, and while they vary in severity, it’s a signal that not all is right. The growing number of depressed adolescents and young adults who do not receive any mental health treatment of their symptoms calls for renewed outreach efforts, especially in school and college health and counseling services and pediatric practices where many of the untreated adolescents and young adults with depression may be detected and managed.
(I bolded cyber-bullying. This is one reason I want to do a journal series like I asked about in my poll. It is more serious than people realize.)
Dispelling Myths on Mental Illness
Myth: Mental illness is the result of bad parenting.
Fact: Children can, and do, have mental health conditions. While environmental factors can affect a person’s mental health, biological factors can affect individuals just as actively. Mental health conditions are not simply a side effect of parenting, but a combination of influences.
Myth: People are “faking it” or doing it for attention.
Fact: No one would choose to have a mental illness, just as no one would choose to have a physical illness. For anyone living with a mental health condition, their specific symptoms may not always be visible to an untrained observer. It can be challenging to relate to what people with mental health conditions are going through, but that doesn’t mean that their condition isn’t real.
Myth: Mental illness is caused by personal weakness.
Fact: Just like any major illness, mental illness is not the fault of the person who has a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like being the victim of a crime. Biochemical processes and circuits as well as basic brain structure may play a role too. Intelligence has nothing to do with mental illnesses or brain disorders. On one hand, many people with mental disorders are brilliant, creative, productive people. On the other hand, some people with mental disorders are not brilliant or creative. Certain mental illnesses may make it difficult for people to remember facts or get along with other people, making it seem like they are cognitively challenged
Myth: You’re just sad, not depressed.
Fact: Mental illness is not something a person can will away. People often have the misconception that a person can just “cheer up” or “shake it off.” It is not just “the blues,” but a serious medical condition that affects the biological functioning of our bodies. However, there are treatments like cognitive therapy or medication that can help address the symptoms of depression. Research shows that depression has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. It results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function.
Myth: People with mental health conditions are violent and dangerous.
Fact: Having a mental health condition does not make a person more likely to be violent or dangerous. The truth is, living with a mental health condition makes you more likely to be a victim of violence, four times the rate of the general public. Very little violence in society is caused by people who are mentally ill. Unfortunately, Hollywood often portrays mentally ill people as dangerous.
Check out this poll I found!
Myth: Psychiatric disorders are not real medical issues.
Fact: Just as with heart disease and diabetes, mental illnesses are a legitimate medical illness.
Myth: You can never get better from a mental illness.
Fact: Mental health issues are not always lifelong disorders. For example, some depression and anxiety disorders only require a person to take medication for a short period of time.
Treatments for mental illnesses are more numerous and more sophisticated than ever and researchers continue to discover new treatments. While all symptoms may not be alleviated easily or at all, with the right recovery plan, people can live the productive and healthy lives they’ve always imagined. In order to sustain your mental health, you may need to continue treatment even after you feel better. It doesn’t matter if you need to take medication short-term or long-term, you should never stop taking medication, or change your treatment plan without talking about it with your health provider first.
Myth: You can’t help someone with mental illness.
Fact: Everyone can help those living with mental illness by speaking and acting in a way that preserves personal dignity. If you are a part of removing mental illness stigma in our society you are helping everyone affected by a condition. Two easy ways to do this are:
Using person-first language. This means that a person is not their illness; an example would be saying “she has depression” not “she is depressed”. Do not use offensive slang. A person with a mental health condition is not “crazy,” “psycho,” “insane,” or “loony.” When you use these words you are implying again that a person is solely their illness.
Learn as much as possible about mental health and your family member's condition. Show interest in your family member's treatment plan. Encourage your family member to follow the treatment plan. Strive for an atmosphere of cooperation within the family. Listen carefully. Don't push too hard. Express your support out loud. Don't give up.
Myth: People with mental illnesses should be kept in institutions.
Fact: While not always the case in psychiatric history, today, the majority of people living with mental illness do not need long-term hospitalization. A more comprehensive and ever-expanding understanding of mental health conditions have progressed treatments with respect and medical advancements. Like other diseases, there are periods of time where a person is particularly unwell and need a short hospital stay, but very few stay longer than a week or two.
Myth: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as shock therapy, is painful and barbaric.
Fact: ECT is one of the most effective treatments for people whose depression is so severe that antidepressant medications just don’t do the job and who are debilitated by the depression.
Why Mental Illness Should Be A Public Health Priority
Research suggests that the majority of people hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness. Often the negative stereotypes involve perceptions that people with mental illness are dangerous. This perception is fueled by media stories that paint violent perpetrators as “mentally ill” (I like Criminal Minds, but it seems every profile they give is a sociopathic or psychopathic narcissist. Narcissists are horrible people, but they are not sadistic serial killers, and it only makes narcissists look worse than they already are. A false perception.) without providing the context of the broad spectrum of mental illness. This bias is not limited to people who are either uninformed or disconnected from people with mental illness; in fact health care providers and even some mental health professionals hold these very same stereotypes. A former therapist I had said their practice does not treat high spectrum Borderline Personality Disorder or people with Anti-Social Personality Disorder. They are more prone to violence and extremely difficult to work with. A mental health professional who specializes in the more high risk of violence disorders is what is required.
These negative attitudes often manifest as social distancing with respect to people with mental illness. In particular, when people feel that an individual with mental illness is dangerous, that results in fear and increased social distance. This social distancing may result in the experience of social isolation or loneliness on the part of people with mental illness. This stigma and social distancing have the potential to worsen the well-being of people with mental illness in several ways. First, the experience of social rejection and isolation that comes from stigma has the potential for direct harmful effects. It has long been understood that social isolation is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes and even early mortality. Further, social isolation predicts disability among individuals with mental illness.
People with mental health issues recognize and internalize this stigma to develop a strong "self-stigma". This self-stigma will often undermine self-efficacy, resulting in a “why try” attitude that can worsen prospects of recovery. Further, as people begin to experience symptoms of their mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, stigma may cause some people to try to avoid, separate from or suppress these feelings, all of which have been linked to the worsening of well-being.
This stigma doesn’t just worsen outcomes on a personal level, but also complicates the care and resources available to people with mental illness. The effects of stigma work both ways – mental health conditions are not typically screened in most health care settings, losing an important opportunity for care.
It is incumbent on all of us to do our part to help lessen and reduce the stigmas that are pervasive in our culture. Doing so will not only result in far better treatment outcomes for those who live with mental illness, but it also will result in a much more tolerant, loving and safer society for all of us. Let's all do our part to help end the negative perceptions about mental illness and raise awareness whenever we can.
Disclaimer: This material is for informational and educational purposes only. Although I make every effort to ensure accuracy of information, there may be some inaccuracies, errors, or omissions. It is not a substitute for professional advice. My information comes from personal experiences and various books and articles I have read over many years. I cannot give advice on medications, diagnosis, or other questions that only a professional doctor can provide. I will not be held responsible or liable for the way you use this information beyond offering awareness and education.