Anxiety, depression, panic, and other disorders affect 70 percent of Americans. But why are we so afraid of talking about mental health? And how do you even begin the conversation?
You Are Not Alone
The next time you find yourself in a public setting such as taking in a ballgame at Jet Blue Park, dining at Doc Ford’s, or wriggling your toes in the sand at Fort Myers Beach, look around you. In your head, count out four adults, including yourself.
One of you has a mental health condition.
Take anxiety disorders, for example. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 70 percent of American adults say they’re stressed or anxious every single day. About one-third of them admit having anxiety or panic attacks.
You may have anxiety or symptoms of depression. Maybe you know someone battling addiction or you have a family history of bipolar disorder. The point is: Mental disorders are all around us and can affect anyone. And since mental health disorders are medical problems – just like cancer or diabetes – available treatments have been studied, improved, and deliver consistent results.
The World Health Organization states that only 33 percent of people with a known mental disorder get help for it. The rest continue to suffer in silence. Why?
We are ashamed.
Stigma…Mark of Disgrace
Quite simply, stigma is the negative attitude and belief that makes us fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.
How often have we heard: “It’s their fault, their symptoms are just a phase, and they could get over it if they would only try harder”?
When was the last time you heard someone with a heart condition told “to get over it”? Hardly anyone feels stigmatized by heart disease. Yet mental health illnesses cause shame, embarrassment, or guilt.
What Causes Stigma?
“Stigma partly stems from a lack of awareness and inaccurate information about mental illness,” says Paul G. Simeone, Ph.D., vice president of mental and behavioral health at Lee Health. He suggests further that, at the cultural level, stigma is a response to “the growing pains of becoming an increasingly diverse society. Everyone wants to be part of the tribe or not get left behind. That explains bullying, for example. Bullying makes a group more cohesive. It makes fragile bonds stronger. You reduce someone else’s value to enhance your own value and value of the group.”
In a previous blog about mental health stigma, Dr. Simeone wrote that “…we are all, more or less, instinctually fearful of the other, whether he or she is of another race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, or -- in the darker regions of our psyches -- someone we recognize in ourselves.”
Stigma’s Terrible Effect: Shame and Guilt Keeps People from Getting Help
Stigma about mental illness can make people afraid to tell others they have mental health problems. That prevents treatment and recovery. People then diminish their own self‐esteem, limiting prospects for recovery.
Simply put, stigma hurts people.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, people living with mental health conditions are:
- Alienated and seen as "others."
- Perceived as dangerous. The fact is: People with serious mental illness are more likely to fall prey to violence than to commit it.
- Seen as irresponsible or unable to make their own decisions.
- Less likely to be hired.
- Less likely to get safe housing.
- More likely to be criminalized than offered health care services.
- Afraid of rejection to the point that they don’t always pursue opportunities.
Let’s Stop It Now: How to Reduce the Stigma of Mental Illness
So, what can we do to rid ourselves of the stigma surrounding mental illness?
Talk about it. “We have to continue to talk about it the same way we have to normalize other differences, whether we’re talking about mental health, gender, sexuality, civil rights, whatever it is that differentiates people from the mainstream tribe,” Dr. Simeone says.
Not long ago, to talk about cancer was “taboo.” As we became more comfortable, the disease lost its stigma. Cancer became normalized as a topic for discussion, in other words.
Education.“My kids are way more tolerant than I was and I am more way tolerant than my parents,” Dr. Simeone says. “That’s a function of education as a public policy position. Talking about difference is what reduces stigma, including education around the fact that there’s dignity in being different. It doesn’t really matter how we’re different.”
Embrace empathy and validation.Not understanding other people’s struggles can leave us at a loss for the right words to support them. We want to help, of course. Just offering an encouraging word or doing a simple, supportive act can go a long way. You might even change a person’s life for the better.
Be thoughtful with your language.Having a condition doesn’t define someone, nor should you refer to that person as such. People experience their illness, but they aren’t their illness. A person isn’t bipolar, she suffers from bipolar disorder. Or, as other examples, avoid using “schizophrenic” to describe volatile changes in the weather, or saying “I’m so OCD” to describe habits that are not related to an actual obsessive-compulsive disorder. Being mindful about language helps prevent misconceptions around mental illness.
Practice tolerance. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” Dr. Simeone says. “That tide is tolerance.”
Mental health conditions are real, common, and treatable. Experts stress that improvements in mental health care start with each of us -- opening up, realizing it’s OK to ask for help, and no longer demonizing those who struggle. Be a voice of change as we speak out together against mental health stigma.
Major Types of Mental Illness
Mental illness refers to a wide range of disorders that affect our mood, thinking, and behavior. One’s age, gender, social standing, religion or race/ethnicity doesn’t matter.
When we have a mental illness, we can experience distress and problems functioning at work, home, and in social situations. It’s not something we can overcome with willpower, either. Nor does it mean we’re moral failures. Biological factors such as genes or brain chemistry, trauma and abuse, and family history of mental illness can cause mental illness.
The major types of mental illness include:
- Mood disorders, including Bipolar Disorder
- Personality disorders
- Psychotic Disorders, including schizophrenia
- Eating disorders
- Substance Use Disorders
Lee Health Behavioral Health
Lee Health Behavioral Health Services strives to address the diverse mental health needs of our community by providing psychiatric services and mental health resources. These include outpatient services for people 18 and older suffering from a variety of psychiatric disorders. Services include new client evaluation, medication management, and psychotherapeutic evaluation and management.
Want more information? Check out www.leehealth.org/behavioral-health/index.asp or call 239-343-9180.
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