Remember the adage knowledge is power? If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, you were bombarded by this statement. But there’s another that bears repeating. Words are powerful. The words we use to identify things, concepts and ideas, can immediately stir a particular emotion, reaction, or mental image. One such example is the term mental illness. When uttered, it almost instantly causes an involuntary cringe. It scares us, but it really shouldn’t.
What Is Mental Illness?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines mental illness as any number of health conditions that involve changes in a person’s behavior, emotions, or thinking. Some mental health conditions incorporate changes in all three of these areas. In most cases, the development of a mental illness stems from extreme and lengthy periods of distress.
The APA reports that in a given year, 1 in 24 will experience a serious mental illness, nearly 19% of the U.S. adult population will experience some form of non-serious mental illness, and 1 in 12 will develop a substance use disorder because of a mental illness.
The Stigma Overshadowing Mental Health
If you were experiencing heart palpitation, what would you do?
Let’s be honest; it’s a no-brainer! You would book the soonest possible appointment with your primary care physician, download your symptoms and concerns, and hang on for whatever tests your doctor deemed pertinent. And if you felt like your doctor didn’t act as they should, you’d be hot on the path of a second opinion.
You wouldn’t think twice about it because your heart is vital to your lifespan and quality of life. Mental illness is no different. Except, it is because there’s this ugly, scary, menacing stigma that overshadows mental health. It towers and looms, casting its darkness and doom over mental health and related conditions, like addiction and substance abuse.
Do you know what a stigma is? We hear the word a lot, and it conjures a very specific sensation and image. But do you really know what it means?
Stigma is defined as a sign of disgrace or discredit. It sets a person apart from others, singling them out as different in a negative, weak, or shameful context. Peter Byrne explored the stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it in an article he published in January 2000. Consider this excerpt from his writing:
“Mental illness, despite centuries of learning and the ‘Decade of the Brain’, is still perceived as an indulgence, a sign of weakness. Self-stigmatisation has been described, and there are numerous personal accounts of psychiatric illness, where shame overrides even the most extreme of symptoms. In two identical UK public opinion surveys, little change was recorded over 10 years, with over 80% endorsing the statement that “most people are embarrassed by mentally ill people”, and about 30% agreeing “I am embarrassed by mentally ill persons” (Huxley, 1993).”
Like it or not, we are programmed by society to view mental illness as a weakness and an indulgence, and this concept is dangerous. It perpetuates the dark stigma overshadowing mental health, and it actively stops people from seeking help because of how society in general views that action. But bowing to this stigma is like ignoring heart palpitation – eventually, something very bad and very detrimental to your overall health is going to hit. And it could cost your life.
“Mental Illness” Shouldn’t Scare Us into Silent Suffering
In January 2016, the National Council for Behavioral Health launched a critical campaign. You might call it the start of a war on mental health stigma. Congress approved a $15 million appropriation, according to Psychology Today, and the campaign to shine a giant spotlight on recognizing a mental health or substance abuse emergency ensued.
The words mental illness shouldn’t scare us.
Did you get that? Stop for a minute and read that sentence again. Ready?
The words mental illness shouldn’t scare us.
The stigma surrounding these two words – that feeling of fear, doom, and taboo – is the scariest thing about mental health. It’s how we’ve been conditioned to react, and it’s wrong. There’s nothing weak in battling a mental illness. There’s nothing shameful in getting help for a substance abuse emergency. Mental illnesses and addiction are real medical conditions, just like heart disease and low sex drive. Speaking of which, 30 years ago a stigma similar to that overshadowing mental health loomed over sexual activity. And look at the damage it caused. Look at the lack of education that lead to the spread of sexual diseases and increasing pregnancies in younger and younger women – some minors.
According to in-depth research, much of which is still ongoing and growing our base of hard evidence, mental health disorders often lead to substance abuse and addiction. When our mental health suffers, our very ability to make decisions wavers. This is not a sign of weakness or a lapse in willpower. It’s a simple, unignorably important fact, and it’s one of the reasons cognitive behavioral intervention is a thing.
Mental illness shouldn’t scare us; the stigma that causes people to suffer in silence is what’s frightening. Every year, millions of adults and children stop short of asking for and receiving the help they need to cope with depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, impulse control issues, and many more diagnosable and common mental illnesses.
Mental Illness is Not Terminal
The stigma surrounding mental health conditions is like cancer. It makes people believe that their condition either isn’t real enough to be considered a medical issue, or it’s an incurable anomaly that, for all intents and purposes, is terminal. The stigma causes people to give up before they get help.
Mental illness is NOT terminal. It can be overcome. Remember those heart palpitations? With the proper diagnosis and medical management, they can be treated. You can live a long, healthy life. Ignore it, fail to receive the proper diagnosis and medical treatment, and those little blips can kill you. Mental illness is no different. Proper diagnosis and treatment can, quite literally, save your very life.
Mental illness shouldn’t scare us; the stigma surrounding it should, and we can banish it together. It’s time to stop being scared and make a bat signal for mental health.