STOP THE STIGMA-MENTAL ILLNESS IS A MEDICAL ILLNESS

How many of us would tell a friend or family member who had a fever and sore throat not to go to the doctor, that it was all “in their head”, they are just being weak or lazy or that they should just snap out of it?

Those are some of the messages that persons with mental illness hear, from family, friends, and yes, even some medical professionals.

Yet, one in every 5 adults (almost 47 million) has or will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, as well as 1 in 5 adolescents and many do not access medical treatment due to the stigma of their illness (NIMH Mental Health 2020)

Stigma is when we view someone else in a negative and often unfair way, in this case, because of their mental illness, due to misunderstanding, fear, and misinformation and it often leads to discrimination toward the individual.  As a result, many people with mental illness do not go to or talk with their medical providers about their symptoms, which are often treatable with therapy, medication, or both.

The truth is that mental illness is not a result of a character flaw, weakness, laziness, or any other “fault” of persons, it is not always visible, and many persons with mental illness lead very fulfilling, functional, and happy lives.

It is a condition of the 2nd largest internal organ in our bodies, our brain, and there are several factors that can contribute to the risk of mental illness.  Those factors can include:

  • Genes and family history
  • Life experiences, such as stress or abuse, particularly in childhood
  • Biological factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Exposure to viruses or toxic chemicals in the womb
  • Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Having a serious medical condition, such as cancer
  • Having few friends, and feeling lonely or isolated

Just as we would go see our medical provider if any other of our body’s organs or systems weren’t working quite right, wouldn’t it makes sense that when our brain isn’t working quite right, we would also go to our medical provider?   Unfortunately, many individuals feel shame or embarrassment if their medical issue is the symptoms of mental illness, which keeps them from going to the doctor or other professional who can help, which can then make their symptoms worse.

This stigma results in persons with mental illness being treated having the following experiences:

  • Given the same social distance as criminals
  • Perceived as individuals who should be feared
  • Seen as irresponsible, childlike and unable to make their own decisions
  • Less likely to be hired
  • Less likely to get safe housing
  • More likely to be criminalized than offered health care services
  • Afraid of rejection to the point that they don’t always pursue opportunities

 

Remember the earlier statistics of 1 in 5 persons (adult or adolescents) who experience mental illness?  Given those numbers, each person reading this blog has someone in their immediate or extended family who has or will experience mental illness. Hits close to home, doesn’t it?

The answer lies with all of us, to educate ourselves and then communicate to others, that mental illness is no different from any other medical issue which impacts our ability to feel and do our best, to be present for ourselves and our loved ones, and to live life to the fullest.  While it is always important to maintain an individual’s privacy and confidentiality,  individuals with mental illness should not have to keep it a “secret” as such secrets can be painful, and yes, even deadly, particularly if someone is considering hurting themselves or taking their own life.

The National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI) has launched an information and education campaign called “Cure Stigma” which includes a brief, 3-question quiz, followed by ways to challenge your own and others’ Stigma.  Take the quiz, it’s quick, it’s easy and it is crucial to Stopping the Stigma.   https://www.curestigma.org/quiz  The reality is, that we all know someone who has Mental Illness, and we all have the capacity to change there, and our, futures for the better by stopping the stigma.

 

National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH)  http://nimh.nih.gov

National Association on Mental Health (NAMI) http://nami.org