When someone is diagnosed with a serious medical ailment, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, the typical reaction from family, friends, and acquaintances is sympathy and support. However, a diagnosis of mental illness oftentimes elicits a very different type of response, ranging from wariness and suspicion to outright fear and even discrimination. The perception seems to be that mental illness is a flaw rooted in an individual’s character or personality rather than a neurobiological disease. As a result of this stigma, people with mental illness too often feel ashamed, suffer in silence, and avoid seeking vital treatment.
Mental illness is no small challenge in our nation. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in a given year in the US, approximately one in five adults experiences mental illness and one in every 25 adults experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Unfortunately, less than half of the individuals who experience mental illness are actually receiving the help they need. NAMI reports that only 41 percent of US adults with a mental health condition received mental health services last year.
With so many lives touched, why does our society still tend to stigmatize those who have a mental illness? The answer may lie in several persistent myths. Among them:
People with mental illness just need to change the way they think.Negative thought patterns can be improved dramatically with proper treatment; however, just as a person with diabetes or heart disease can’t “think away” his or her condition, individuals with mood disorders or other forms of mental illness cannot “snap out of it,” “cheer up,” or “chill out” simply by deciding to think or feel differently.
People with mental illness are violent and may hurt me or someone I love. Taken as a group, people with mental illness are no more violent than people without mental illness. In fact, according to NAMI, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it—a rate four times that of the general public. This misconception is likely rooted less in objective reality than in unflattering or outrageous media portrayals of people with mental illness.
People with mental illness are weak and can’t handle the rigors of work or school. Mental illness stems from a variety of biological and environmental factors, not individual weakness. On the contrary, many people with mental illness are quite capable of holding up under the pressures of work, school, and day-to-day life because they’ve learned certain skills and techniques that help them cope with and adapt to stress before it reaches an unmanageable level.
People with mental illness are strange and unpredictable. Some forms of mental illness can manifest through odd or unpredictable behaviors, but many people with mental illness lead active, productive lives without anyone around them knowing what they’re going through. Also, those individuals who do exhibit unusual behaviors as a result of their illness can often learn to recognize and manage them effectively through proper treatment.
Mental illness will never affect me. Nearly 44 million Americans experience mental illness each year, so it’s the rare individual whose life will never be touched by some form of it. Those who think no one close to them has mental illness might be surprised to learn that a friend, family member, coworker, or acquaintance lives and functions with mental illness every day. Whether it is experienced firsthand or not, mental illness is an issue that affects everyone.
With May being designated Mental Health Month, there’s no time like the present to evaluate how we perceive mental illness and consider how our perceptions might impact others’—or even our own—willingness to discuss this problem openly and seek professional treatment when necessary. What better time to remove the stigma we’ve attached to mental illness?❦