For years it has been a struggle for those battling a mental illness to admit to anyone what they were going through.
Almost 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental health disorder in a given year, yet only 25% of those people feel that others are understanding or compassionate about their illness, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
We normally refer to a situation like this as a stigma, but the situation around mental illness has gone beyond just a stigma in many cases and has crossed the line into discrimination. It is a prejudicial outlook on a segment of our population.
Even using the word “stigma” can result in negative stereotyping. “We at SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) don’t use the word stigma,” said Kana Enomoto, principal deputy administrator of SAMHSA. “You look the word up in the dictionary, and it refers to a mark of shame.”
Those fighting a mental illness are often put in a position to feel shame and that they have a character deficiency that is something to be embarrassed of. Often they are told, “it is all in their heads” or it is something to “just get over”.
The problems go deeper.
People with a mental illness are more likely to have a run in with law enforcement than get medical help during a psychological crisis. Jails are becoming our mental health centers. Today you will find more people with a mental illness incarcerated than in hospitals. They are blamed for violence when in reality they are more likely to be victims of violence. They also have a higher rate of homelessness.
The mentally ill are seen as a danger to society and to themselves.
Mental illness being seen as a character flaw is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back hundreds of years. In the 1700s, people were routinely thrown in jail who suffered from mental illnesses, usually because nobody knew what else to do with them.
It was not until the 1800s, when Dorthea Dix, an activist for mental health, began to change the perceptions around mental health by opening hospitals to treat people with mental disorders. Sadly, it was also around this time that brain surgeries began to be performed to calm patients who displayed signs of serious mental illness. This grew into what we know today as lobotomy.
There is no doubt that our attitudes towards mental health and methods of care have improved since those early days, there is still a long, long way to go.
Our politicians cannot agree on what needs to be done to address the concern in our country, but it does not stop there.
Law Enforcement: Many law enforcement officials lack the proper training on how to deal with mental illness during an encounter. They do not know how to de-escalate the situation, and too often it ends in tragedy.
The Workplace: In the workplace, people suffering from mental health conditions are often terrified to reveal their conditions due to fear of losing their job, being passed over for promotions, or simply being outcast among their co-workers.
Medicine: Even in the medical field we are not doing enough. Primary care physicians often neglect to follow up with their patients after a depression diagnosis, according to a study published this year in the journal Health Affairs. However, they are much more likely to follow up in cases of chronic physical pain or illness.
We Need Change
It starts with encouraging people to talk openly about mental health. Without an open conversation, people will not seek the help and support they need, support that can lead to recovery.
Untreated mental illness can lead to lower productivity, poor sleep habits, and withdrawal from social situations. In its worst manifestations, it can lead to suicide.
We need more mental health training for law enforcement and first responders. We need policies that help people with mental illness get the care they need from medical professionals. And we need more workplace acceptance and understanding of mental health.
Obviously, not all of us have the power to change the laws, initiate workplace policies, or to make sure police officers are receiving proper training. However, what each of us can do is lend our voice in calling out judgmental views on mental illness for what they really are, discrimination against a group of individuals.