Fewer Stigmas About Mental Health but Misperceptions Persist

by Gary Gilles

stop-mental-illness-stigmaPeople with mental illness have traditionally not been treated well. A brief survey of history will reveal that those with mental health problems have been treated differently at best and with dehumanizing brutality at worst. The assumption we tend to make about mental illness is that different is dangerous. We are quick to categorize unconventional or socially inappropriate behavior as mental instability. This perception that all mental illness represents danger, instability or incompetence can easily lead to unintended discrimination and stigmas that are extremely difficult to change.

But, it appears that attitudes toward mental health are changing for the better. A recent national survey on mental health, anxiety and suicide found that 90% of Americans see a connection between a person’s mental health and their ability to function healthily in daily life. Most of those surveyed viewed mental health as important as physical health to overall wellbeing. That’s good new for the estimated 43 million Americans (about 1 in 5 people) that live with a diagnosable mental disorder.

The faces of mental health stigma

Mental health stigmas are perpetuated by many sources. The medical and psychiatric communities like to assign people diagnostic labels such as “bipolar, schizophrenic, depressive” and “neurotic” to name a few. These labels, while helpful for insurance purposes, can easily begin to define the person as an illness instead of a person with a condition. For example, we might refer to a person as “bipolar” instead of referring to them as a person who has symptoms characteristic of bipolar disorder.

The media accentuates these diagnostic labels where they create stereotypes of people with mental health problems. For example there are far more negative portrayals of schizophrenia than positive in the media and in contemporary film that serve to strengthen stigmas. Many people associate the diagnosis of schizophrenia with a strong potential for violence. But in reality only a very small percentage of people living with schizophrenia are inclined toward violence. Most people with schizophrenia can live normal lives due to effective medications that control their symptoms.

People who live with mental illness can themselves unintentionally reinforce the very stigmas they loathe. As they experience discrimination from individuals and the larger culture for their behavior, they internalize their diagnostic label and feel different from others. Feeling different is often synonymous with feeling defective. When a person feels defective, they almost always feel a sense of shame and shame invariably leads to less effort to change. If you are bipolar, for example, you will always be bipolar, right?

Now’s the time to push against mental health stigmas

We desperately need to push against these stigmas in order to lower inhibitions to getting help. The national survey on mental health, anxiety and suicide also found suicide rates have increased by almost 20% between 1999 and 2013. There are a lot of hurting people in our culture who could benefit from getting treatment but don’t because of the stigma attached. Those dealing with drug issues, dysfunctional families, job layoffs, excessive stress and trauma are obvious ones that come to mind.

The good news from the survey is that younger people seem to be willing to break some of these stereotypes. Those between the ages 18 and 24 indicated that they are more comfortable seeking professional mental health assistance than older adults. Hopefully that trend will continue.

Combatting mental health stigma

While we are making progress toward dismantling the stigmas around mental illness, we still have a long way to go. Here are some suggestions of how to keep momentum moving in a positive direction.

·      Admit when you, a loved one or friend needs help. It takes courage to make your needs known. It is actually a sign of strength, not weakness, to admit that you need help.

·      Educate yourself on the symptoms of your condition. Push past the stereotypes to learn what treatments are available for the symptoms you are experiencing. This also allows you to seek out the most appropriate professional(s) for help.

·      Connect with others who struggle with the same condition. Look for a local or online support group to share ideas and feel supported by others who understand what it’s like to live with your symptoms.

·      Don’t equate your identity with your diagnosis. You are far more than your diagnosis. Celebrate all of your skills, knowledge and experience. Refuse to let the symptoms define your personhood.

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