A Google search yields 76,500,000 results in 0.48 seconds. Another search on Google News yields 7,310,000 more results. Clearly, the psychological fitness of individuals is a hot topic nowadays. It’s even made its way into Hollywood through horror favorites such as Psycho and Friday the 13th. With an increase in mass shootings, a growth in awareness campaigns such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Awareness), and a spike in suicide rates, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
What is also unsurprising is that when the majority of people encounter mental illness in real life, suddenly, it becomes less intriguing. In fact, it becomes more uncomfortable to address. Earlier this year, one of my classmates returned from mysteriously being absent for about a month; it was rumored that she had been sent to a mental institution for depression treatment. When she finally returned, people immediately tensed up as she entered the classroom. They clenched their jaws, furrowed their brows, or wrapped their arms around themselves, becoming both physically and emotionally closed off. Witnessing this made me furious — how could my classmates have been so unwilling to support their fellow student upon her return to school?
This is certainly a complex question, one I may never fully have an explanation for. However, there is one issue that appears to be a major part of the answer. There is a quite obvious stigma surrounding mental illnesses and those who have them, which not only worsens the victims’ suffering, but also prevents people from fully understanding the devastating impacts of the illnesses on the individual, their family, and the entire community.
Ironically, these people are much more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator. People with schizophrenia, in fact, are 14 times more likely to be a victim of a serious crime than people who do not suffer from the condition.
Despite the fact that people with mental disorders are apt to be victims, people today tend to see them as dangers to society. With the influx of school shootings within the past year, people have been calling for mental health assessments for those looking to buy guns, however, only 3–5% of firearm assaults are linked to people with a serious mental illness.
This may come as a surprise due to the various stigmas surrounding mental illness and the association of mental illnesses with personality disorders. Personality disorders are separate from other mental illnesses because they result in behavioral issues that go against what is considered morally correct. Personality disorders also encompass behaviors such as psychopathy and sociopathy while other mental illnesses encompass anxiety, depression, schizophrenia…etc. Although people with mental health issues are normally harmless, those with personality disorders are quite dangerous since they lack morals and empathy. Since few people are aware of the fact that these ailments are separate, the stereotypes from both afflictions tend to get lumped together.
I, for one, find it fascinating that people harbor fears towards others who have mental illnesses in general because a select few act out. Yet, 90% of those in jail are male and people do not shut out or degrade men in the same way because they might lash out.
This way of thinking has led to discrimination against those who are sick and has led to increased shame felt by the sufferer. A man named Ian shared his story regarding anorexia with Time to Change this February. He described his hardships and how people thought “a man in his 30s…couldn’t develop anorexia,” and the negative impact this had on his own self-worth. Later on he stated, “I took their silence as evidence that they didn’t care. Thought I was pathetic. Believed being mentally ill was something to be ashamed of.”
No human being deserves to feel this way.
As a result of having a mental illness and having to endure the consequent social and self stigmas surrounding the disability, victims like Ian have a harder time recovering, their quality of life is lower than it would be otherwise, and their performance in a work/school environment becomes worse.
In addition to the stigma itself having a negative effect on the sufferer, there are also more widespread impacts.
Since people with a mental illness are more inclined to have educational difficulties, lower productivity, and a lack of support needed from insurance for treatment, they are more likely to fall into poverty. In fact, “5–6 million US workers aged 16–54 ‘lose, fail to seek, or cannot find employment’ due to mental illness” (with the major perpetrators being depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder). Consequently, many end up homeless, as shown by the fact that 20 to 25% of the US homeless population are sufferers. This leaves the US workforce weakened. This also means that there are 5–6 million people who are unable to achieve their full potential and utilize their minds and unique experiences to contribute to our future.
Not only can the impacted individual not work at their full capacity, but neither can their families, which often results in a loss of income and leads for them to rely on the government for assistance. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mental health problems cost nations 3 to 4% of their GNP, or that the US is estimated to be losing several billion dollars annually due to this loss of productivity, yet it does. The money being lost could have been utilized elsewhere whether it be for funding research on more efficient modes of transportation or cancer.
In short, our progression as a human race is being severely obstructed by various mental diseases.
Now imagine what it would be like if sufferers could come back to work and not feel ashamed about themselves and receive proper treatment. They could draw from their different perspectives to help others overcome their own dilemmas, creating a healthier environment for everyone. This cannot become a reality, however, until more people become aware of mental health and offer unconditional empathy and support.
From a young age, we have been taught to care about issues that do not directly concern us. For example, I remember in 2010 when my elementary school set up fundraiser after fundraiser to help the people in Haiti after the devastating earthquake. Even more recently, my fellow high school students donated a variety of supplies to help the struggling people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017. These fundraisers exhibited a hyper awareness and empathy; it was clear that the community cared about the issues. And with more attention comes more help and progress.
From what I have gathered from both research and personal experience, when mental illness is considered, if someone is not suffering from it, they tend to develop this misconception that it does not affect them and are more likely to ignore the issue. Consequently, victims of psychological disorders are often left forgotten and lack the support they need to overcome their afflictions unlike those harmed by physical forces. This has always bothered me since the only difference between victims of mental illness and victims of, say, natural disasters is that their adversity is a silent battle that seems to follow them wherever they go.
And after completing further research, my concern has only grown. Considering the billions lost annually and the millions put out of work, mental health has a major impact on the global economy. However it’s important to remember that it is not only an economic problem, but a problem that directly affects the well-being of 450 million people worldwide.
One of these 450 million people suffering is a woman named Bianca. She spends every second of every day battling a variety of anxiety disorders. For a long while, this anxiety dominated her life and made even simple tasks impossible. Her anxiety seemed to come out of nowhere and “[progressively] got worse…Within a week [of her first panic attack, she had to] quit [her] job, too scared [she would] have another attack while driving.” As a result of her mental illness, her entire life had been derailed and while she was slowly deteriorating, she had to deal with people staring and making comments about her “hair [that] was thin [and her] bones [that] stuck out through [her] clothes [due to her anxiety].”
People shouldn’t have to live this way; to live in constant fear or anguish is agony and the cruelest of tortures. People also need to realize that diseases of the mind such as anxiety and depression are just as painful as physical wounds such as cuts and bruises — perhaps even more so because they cannot be simply fixed with a band-aid and kiss on the forehead. If Bianca had a better support system and coworkers who understood her pain, perhaps there would have been less pressure for her to quit her job. Instead, she could have sought treatment and returned once she was better, similar to people with physical illnesses such as cancer. This awareness could have made her life more stable, which could have also steadied the lives of people around her such as her family, friends, and colleagues.
Thankfully, concerns regarding mental illness are slowly gaining more attention in the medical world. However, it is important that the public also be aware of the impacts in order to understand the severity of the problem, push people of authority to make a change, and even attempt to find solutions themselves.
As playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
If we cannot begin to see mental illness as a global issue, and a human issue, and tackle it soon through either political or medical means, the problem will only grow larger and continue to destroy more people.
That is, until it consumes us whole.
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