Stamping Out the Stigma of Mental Illness

It is an undisputed fact that individuals who experience mental health issues are often faced with discrimination that results from misconceptions of their illness. As a result, many people who would benefit from mental health services often do not seek treatment for fear that they will be viewed in a negative way. The World Health Organization agrees and says that in the 400 million people worldwide who are affected by mental illness, about twenty percent reach out for treatment. The World Psychiatry Association began an international program to fight the stigma and discrimination many people hold toward individuals who have mental health issues.

In the 21st century, though evidence-based research has shown us that mental illness is a real medical disorder, stigma is on the rise instead of on the decline. David Satcher, (United States Surgeon General, 1998–2002) wrote on the subject,

"Stigma was expected to abate with increased knowledge of mental illness, but just the opposite occurred: stigma in some ways intensified over the past 40 years even though understanding improved. Knowledge of mental illness appears by itself insufficient to dispel stigma."

 

Myths and Facts about Mental Illness

Here are some common myths that may be used to justify negative feelings about people with mental illness:

 

MYTH:   Mental Illness is fairly rare and doesn't affect average people.

FACT:    Mental Illness is quite common. According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently live with such conditions, placing mental health issues among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. Mental Illness can strike people of any age, race, religion, or income status.

 

MYTH:   People with Mental Illnesses are dangerous.

FACT:    This powerful myth has been fed by the media. In fact, the vast majority of people with Mental Illnesses are not dangerous. They are much more likely to be the victims of violence and crime than the perpetrators.

 

MYTH:   If you have a Mental Illness, you can will it away. Being treated for a psychiatric disorder means an individual has in some way "failed" or is weak.

FACT:    A serious Mental Illness cannot be willed away. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away, either. It takes courage to seek professional help.

 

MYTH:   Depression and other Illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, do not affect children or adolescents. Any problems they have are just a part of growing up.

FACT:    Children and adolescents can develop Mental Illnesses. One in ten children or adolescents has a disorder severe enough to cause impairment.

 

MYTH:   Most people with a Mental Illness are receiving treatment.

FACT:    Only 1 in 5 persons affected with a Mental Illness seeks treatment.

 

MYTH:   Mental Illness is more like a weakness than a real Illness.

FACT:    Mental Illnesses are as real as other diseases like diabetes or cancer. Some Mental Illnesses are inherited, just as some physical Illnesses are. They are not the result of a weak will or a character flaw.

 

MYTH:   People with Mental Illnesses can never be normal.

FACT:    Science has made great strides in the treatment of Mental Illness in recent decades. With proper treatment, many people with Mental Illnesses live normal, productive lives.

 

How You Can Help Fight Stigma

We can all do our part to reduce stigma within our communities and make life easier for the millions of people who live with or struggle with mental illness. Here are some ideas:

 

1.       Educate yourself about mental illness. Having the facts can help you challenge the misinformation that leads to stigma.

2.       Be aware of words. Don't reduce people to a diagnosis. Instead of "a schizophrenic," say "a person with schizophrenia." Correct people who use hurtful language to describe people with mental illness, such as "psycho" or "crazy."

3.       Challenge media stereotypes. Write letters to any newspapers, TV or radio stations that promote negative portrayals of people with mental illness.

4.       Support those with mental health issues. Treat them with respect. Help them find jobs or housing. Encourage them to get or stick with treatment.

5.       Share your story. If you or someone in your family has had a mental illness, speak up about it. Your example could help someone else.

 

"Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all." - Bill Clinton