Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness

I’m not certain why there is a stigma surrounding mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps the stigma originates from social pressures to conform, that is, to act like “everyone else.” Obviously, when someone is mentally ill, he/she cannot act like everyone else, even if we wish this could happen; even if we ask nicely for the person to “just act normal”; or even if we distance ourselves from the person until he/she “snaps out of it.” Depression, anxiety, and other forms of neuroticism are common in our society. Psychoses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, while less common than neuroticism, are prevalent in many families and often have a genetic (inherited) component. Recent estimates range from 20% to 25% of Americans who suffer from some type of diagnosable mental illness, with some people having more than one type of disorder. Whether we like it or not, mental illness is a fact of life; it is not going away. Mental illness is especially concerning as it relates to members of our military and our veterans, many of who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress and/or substance abuse disorders. Mentally ill people are present in all facets of society, from the wealthy person who has serious phobias, to the homeless person who experiences hallucinations. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental illness is one way we can help one another. Doing our part to assist someone who is having a crisis will go a long way in preventing suicide, homelessness, and other societal consequences of untreated mental illness. The first step in providing help to someone in need, of course, is to refrain from looking the other way, hoping it will go away, or telling the person to “get over it.” It is incumbent upon all of us to reduce the stigma of mental illness, to ensure people who are experiencing a life crisis will be able to get the help they need.

It seems strange to me that some things have stigmas when they should not.  Mental illness is one of those things families like to hide in a closet.  A few years ago, when Melissa and I lived in a small city in Broward County, we had occasion to interact with our little police department.  We learned this small police department had to dedicate an officer to interact with, and handle problems caused by, local mentally ill people.  This is an upscale, waterfront community.  Turns out, the closet some people are hidden in are whole houses; we were told families in the northeastern U.S. sometimes send their mentally ill children or other family member to live in a mansion in sunny Florida.  Thus, they are hiding in plain sight, like the woman who sleeps on park benches instead of her multimillion dollar house! (We have seen her regularly for the past 30 years.) Not being personally involved with a situation like that makes it hard to comprehend.  But, if the answer is to send them away rather than face a problem, an illness, this seems pretty extreme.  But, as Melissa and I have discussed, an illness is an illness whether it is in one’s brain, heart, or a broken limb.  It is an illness that is difficult to treat or manage, with potential side effects that sometimes seem overwhelming, but failing to try to treat and manage mental illness, preferring to hide it away, is not a healthy solution.  Of course, the fact that many times the incapacitated person is an adult makes the challenge greater.  Yet, one of the big hurdles is facing and accepting the reality.  As I described in the prior post, I suppose that one reason “Cousin” was not helped is because no one wanted to admit she needs help.  There are other illogical stigmas such as hearing aids for people who are not senior citizens.  Melissa and I are aware of several people who avoid using hearing aids so as not to be thought of as old.  Instead of denying reality,  face it and work on the illnesses or issues that can be addressed.

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