Why the Stigma of Mental Illness is Foolish

Each year, 1 in 5 US adults experiences mental illness. That’s approximately 18.5% of individuals over the age of 18. Each year, 1 in 20 adults experience a serious mental illness that interferes with or impairs their ability to function in life. More than half of those with a mental illness are not aware and are undiagnosed. Let’s take a moment to really think about that.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

When someone is coughing, sneezing, experiencing an itchy throat, or bleeding, we know something is wrong and will typically inquire with concern about “what’s wrong” with that individual. We see symptoms of physical illness and acknowledge that something in that individuals body is compromised. On the other hand, when we see symptoms of a mental illness, we either are completely oblivious, attribute the symptom to the person’s personality, dismiss it, or tell the person to change, stop or get over it. Would you tell someone with cancer to just stop having a compromised immune system? Or tell someone with an asthma attack to just fix their breathing?

I bet that’s a hard no.

So what is it about mental illness, which is just as impactful and serious on ones’ well-being as physical illness, that causes most of us to turn blind? Well for one, there is no single answer. There is still a lack of education disseminated to the masses. Most major religions spiritualize mental illness as signs of demonic influence and the presence of sin. Individuals don’t understand that symptoms for mental illness are manifested in behaviors and not physical signs like bleeding. Those who are aware of and diagnosed with their conditions, in mass, are not open to the public about their experiences. Most importantly, stigma and shame are still very prevalent.

May is mental health awareness month, and I find it important to bring information to the masses not just during this month, but every month.

Its important that we change the way we look at mental health and mental illness. When asked the difference between physical illness and physical health, one can often describe the difference between a compromised state and an overall snapshot of ones’ state of being, however people will unknowingly use the same examples and descriptions for both mental illness and mental health; and that is a problem.

It’s important that we talk about mental health and mental illness as much as we do about physical health and physical illness. Every year, pharmacies and medical providers create advertisement campaigns about flu shots. Cancer research organizations have massive campaigns to provide support for survivors and their families. You know, if you’re having a medical emergency to call your local hospital or private physician, but if you or a loved one displayed mental illness symptoms or was having an emergency, would you know a therapy service provider to reach out to?

Again, for most people, I bet that’s a hard no.

Within the last decade or so, it seems that mental health is integrated in mainstream dialogue under the circumstances of the following:

- Stories of teen suicide

- Stories of suicide as a result of being belittled about sexuality

- Examining the profile of a mass shooter/ domestic terrorist

- When a celebrity or notable figure reveals a diagnosis

- When the death of a celebrity or notable figure is tied to substance abuse

All points of entry matter when it comes to discussing the topic, but we must do better. Consider once again, 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness every year. That means there are people all around that have a disorder or illness, either unbeknownst to you, or them. This can also mean, that you may have an illness or disorder. What would happen if people with the flu didn’t stay home to rest or take anything to cure their infection? It would spread and affect others. Well consider, there are fully, semi, and non-functioning people will mental illnesses all around you; sick, with no treatment, and they are affecting people around them.

Let’s all commit to ending the cycles of stigma, misinformation, and lack of empathy when it comes to mental illness. The stigma is foolish and the prevalence is too high to be ignored.

Resources:

National Alliance on Mental Health

Mental Health America

National Institute of Mental Health