Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness
– John Newmark, M.S., LMHC
There are a wide variety of disorders classified as “mental illnesses” in the United States, ranging from depression and anxiety disorders, addictions and personality disorders to schizophrenia and a vast number in between.
Each year an estimated 43 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from some type of mental illness, a staggering number which amounts to a huge percentage of the total adult population; while these cases may vary significantly in severity from “minor” depression to extreme schizophrenia, a mental illness is classed as ‘serious’ if the condition interferes with a person’s daily functioning and/or going about their day-to-day activities. Left untreated, they can disrupt and destroy our lives; and often do.
The statistics, compiled recently by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) is much the same as their last 2012 survey, which indicated that of the adult population in America, approximately 20% experience a bout of some sort of mental impairment on an annual basis. This estimate is believed by some to be even higher.
The figures are there, the statistics tell the story; mental illness may be a disruption in day-to-day functioning but at approximately 20% of the population it’s difficult to make a case for it being strictly ‘abnormal’ or in any way deserving of stigma; for those who suffer from these conditions, it should also be comforting to know that they are not alone.
For those who experience mental illness, whether it be a six-week incident once during their lives or an ongoing diagnosis of a chronic mental disease, those who are afflicted with mental disorders often find their lives altered drastically by their diagnosis.
While many instances of mental disorders can be quickly and successfully treated through the use of medications and/or comprehensive counseling, society’s reaction and judgment can often be both ignorant and simpleminded, resulting not only in unnecessary and painful stigma but incidences of discrimination that can last a lifetime.
Stigma is often subtle, often taking the form of fear and avoidance, uncertainty, and it can often have a significantly negative impact on factors such as family life, income and employment, social standing and a variety of other factors.
Erasing the Stigma
Over the past few decades, society has been moving slowly toward an awareness of stigma around mental illness; whereas the word ‘stigma’ is defined by many unflattering terms such as ‘blame’ and ‘dishonor’, there are those who are beginning to realize through mental health awareness that mental illness is not a valid reason to automatically label a person as “unfit” or “dangerous.”
From artists and celebrities such as Michelangelo, Beethoven and Van Gogh to Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Elton John, Jim Carrey, Kurt Cobain and Sinead O'Connor (just to name a few); there are a variety of public figures coming forward to speak about their difficulties in this area, and while society is slowly grasping the idea that imposing stigma on those who suffer from mental illness seems archaic and ignorant, for those who are currently or have been in the grips of a mental disorder, it’s still a crushing reality.
For those who have been victimized by stigma, there are several things they can do to try and cope; first and foremost, getting help is vital and the second is to remember not to blame themselves or take it personally.
“Stigma” has existed for many thousands of years in a variety of different contexts and is not unique to any one person; it is a construct of the human mind and internalizing it can be both unproductive and detrimental to healing.
If you’re a victim of stigma due to mental illness, be sure to talk to a mental health professional about ways to cope and heal; from speaking out to viewing your own healing process in a positive light, there are many methods for you to go about living with your illness and building a positive, constructive future.