9.11.2009

A Declaration of Dignity for Mental Illness

I am not ashamed to admit that I suffer from depression. Sometimes this disclosure surprises my neighbors, friends, and counseling clients. They’re accustomed to hearing someone mention that they had the flu, skin cancer, or diabetes… but it’s rare to hear someone talk about agoraphobia or their latest depressive episode while chatting it up at the office water cooler. Talking about mental health problems is taboo, and stigma fuels the tendency to keep our mouths shut about our private struggles.

Silence won’t make these conditions go away. The challenges of mental health and illness affect us all, and talking about them can only dispel the myths and misinformation that surrounds them. I’m not alone in my history of depression. I can easily think of a dozen family members and friends who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, cocaine addiction, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. No one is immune.

People with mental illness are people in my life, people that I love. They aren’t lunatics, and they aren’t dangerous. They’re just like you and me, and they—we—deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

Public Stigma, Private Pain

Imagine for a moment that an acquaintance tells you that she has a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. How might you respond? Would you feel uncomfortable? Would you perceive her differently than you did before? Perhaps your reaction would vary according to which disorder she has or how well you know her. Regardless of the particulars, studies demonstrate that most of us will react with fear, distancing, and rejection.

Stigma is another name for the negative stereotypes our culture attaches to a characteristic or behavior. Usually based on a combination of fear and false beliefs, stigma leads to judgment and discrimination. In the case of mental illness, these fears are rooted in unfounded beliefs that characterize people with mental illness as weak, bizarre, shameful, or violent.

Because our culture lacks understanding of mental disorders, these conditions remain shrouded in mystery and denial. The stigma of mental illness causes people to conceal their disorders. Fear of negative labels and disrespect leads them to hide the truth—sometimes even from themselves.

That fear of rejection discourages people in pain from seeking support. The majority (two thirds) of people with mental conditions don’t seek any treatment. Stigma is the number one factor that keeps people from getting the help they need for ailments that are generally treatable with medication and psychotherapy.

Awareness, Understanding, and Action

Next time you learn of someone’s mental health problems, be aware of your gut reaction. If you feel the urge to distance yourself, don’t beat yourself up about it. Nervousness and fear are normal responses to the unknown. But instead of succumbing to the urge to remove yourself from the situation, see if you can calm yourself and stay present. Instead of falling into old patterns of judgment or stereotyping, experiment with a new pattern of empathy.

Imagine what fears and challenges you might face in the other person’s position. If you are unaware of what their disorder is or worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, try asking questions to learn more about their condition and how it feels to live with it. After all, each year in the United States, approximately 45 million people (about 1 person in 4) experience a mental illness. That means that if you haven’t endured a mental illness yet, there's a good chance that you will.

Like physical disease and injury, some mental disorders have a biological basis while others are prompted by life circumstances and environment. It might help to view these seemingly foreign conditions as similar to bodily diseases. While they aren’t contagious, everyone is susceptible to them. And as we all learn more about prevention and treatment of mental health disorders, stigmatized perceptions of mental illness will emerge from the shadows of ignorance and fear.

We Are Not Our Illnesses

So far, the mental illness stigma remains strong. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. If you have a mental illness, don’t be afraid to seek help from friends, family, doctors, or therapists. Remember that you are more than your illness, and you can find ways to cope.

It is my hope that you will join me in speaking out about the stigma that distorts our views of people who have mental illnesses. We have the power to become more informed and tolerant. As we renounce labels and stereotyping, the mental illness stigma loses its power to shame and condemn people who are simply in pain. With knowledge comes the courage to speak openly and emphasize our common vulnerabilities over our differences. When that happens, we all live with greater dignity.

Learn More:
Ways to Cope with Stigma
Programs to Combat Stigma
Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health

1 comment:

Erin Kelley-Soderholm said...

A reader contacted me with a different perspective on stigma that I found thought-provoking and informative. You can read his article about diminishment at: http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/focus/selfmaio0804.html