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What You Need to Know About Mental Illness and the #IAmStigmaFree Movement

Did you know that only 41 percent of U.S. adults have sought treatment for their mental illness?
mental illness, stigma, mental health

Photo Credit: Emilie Iggiotti

What do you think of when you hear the term “mental illness”? Perhaps you think of the homeless man on the corner who always seems to be talking to himself. Maybe Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook comes to mind. Or does it conjure up a more familiar image? Perhaps a family member or friend suffers from mental illness. Maybe you do.

If you think that mental illness is rare or means someone is “crazy,” here’s news: It’s not, and it doesn’t. In the U.S. alone, 43.8 million people—nearly 20 percent of the population—deal with mental illness. Unfortunately, it is often misunderstood by the general public. Any sort of mental imbalance in a person is usually met with fear or shame. Popular media illustrates those suffering from mental illness as eccentric or extreme. But while this may be true for some, a majority of people living with a diagnosis are stereotyped based on widespread misunderstanding.

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week, an annual event that aims to educate us about the prevalence of mental illness and hopes to reduce the stigma toward those living with it. This year’s theme is being stigma-free (#IAmStigmaFree). By educating ourselves about the symptoms and how common it is, along with increasing our awareness of the available resources, we can take an important step toward helping end the humiliation and disgrace often associated with mental illness in our communities.

Mental Illness Is Not Rare

The term “mental illness” is a broad term. It covers a variety of diagnoses ranging from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and personality disorders. The National Institute for Mental Health found that 18.5 percent of adults (that’s 43.8 million people) in the U.S. had a diagnosable mental illness in 2013. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting approximately 18.1 percent of adults in the U.S.; depression has a 6.9 percent occurrence rate among U.S. adults.

Substance abuse is another common disorder, which affects about 8.1 percent of individuals over the age of 12 in the U.S. When you think about not only the people struggling internally but also the many people who know someone with a mental illness and who are externally affected by it, it’s clear how important it is for us to address this issue.

Stigma is a Barrier to Treatment

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in America experiences a mental illness each year. Yet people often hide their mental illness diagnoses from friends and family. NAMI found that only 41 percent of individuals with a mental illness have sought help for their symptoms. That’s less than half.

Fear of social stigma is one of the five barriers to seeking treatment, according to the American Counseling Association’s Journal of Counseling & Development. Individuals are reluctant to seek out help because they fear others having a negative perception of them.

As a therapist, I often spend time addressing my clients’ concerns about seeking treatment. They fear others labeling them as crazy, weak, or incompetent. They often tell me that they feel pressure from themselves and others to “just get over it.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that while 57 percent of adults without a mental illness believe that people with mental illnesses are treated with care and sympathy, only 25 percent of adults with mental illness believe the same. There’s something wrong with that disparity, and we need to fix it.

Educate Yourself on the Reality of Mental Illness

Stigma stems in part from the general public’s misunderstanding of mental illnesses and the people who cope with them. One common myth is that individuals living with mental illness are violent, unpredictable, or dangerous.

The Center for Reintegration cites a Cornell University study that found no basis for this belief. It actually found that the overwhelming majority of individuals living with a mental illness are not dangerous. Our typical encounter with mental illness, then, is more Lena Dunham’s OCD character Hannah Horvath in Girls and less Angelina Jolie’s sociopathic Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted.

Another common myth is that mental illness is a sign of personal weakness. There are a variety of causes for mental illness. It can be genetic, environmental, biological, or include social factors, according to Australia’s Mental Health Commission.

One way to combat stigma is to learn about what it’s like to live with a mental illness. (You’re already reading this, so you’re ahead of the game.) Many individuals are sharing their stories with the public. For example, in a recent Radiolab episode, Jamie shares her poignant story about what it is like to live with bipolar disorder. She reveals the tough decisions she has to make about treatment options. Elyn R. Saks, a law and psychiatry professor at the University of Southern California, documented her lifelong challenge of living with schizophrenia in her powerful book, The Center Cannot Hold. These accounts give unique insight into what it’s like to live with a mental illness and can deepen your own understanding.

Too often, our society encourages individuals with mental illness to “just get over it” or “show more willpower” to overcome it. The reality is that mental illnesses require treatment and recovery or symptom management. Dispelling these myths about mental illness is an important first step in eliminating stigma.

Change Your Language

If you or someone you know is living with a mental illness, there are many ways you can become part of the movement to end stigma. If you are living with a mental illness, you should seek treatment, surround yourself with support, and refrain from thinking of yourself only as your diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Think, “I am dealing with depression,” not, “I’m depressed,” for example.

The ways we talk about mental illness—even in causal conversation—make a difference in how we perceive illnesses and those affected. Educate yourself on the appropriate way to use mental illness language. For example, avoid using words such as crazy, mental, retarded, and psycho. Avoid describing someone as schizo or bipolar. Instead, describe the person as “living with schizophrenia” or “affected by bipolar disorder.” This acknowledges that the person is more than his or her diagnosis. Making little changes in the way we talk about mental illness speaks volumes to and helps others reframe their thinking. If you hear others using these terms off-the-cuff, speak up (in a tactful way, of course).

Listen Up

Keep the lines of communication open about mental illness. Maria Walley bravely shared her personal experience with anxiety disorder in a recent article for Verily. When she opened up to her friends about her struggle, she was surprised to hear how many of them were either coping with anxiety or knew someone who was. Having the courage to talk about what you or someone else is struggling with encourages support.

If someone you know is living with a mental illness, or you suspect that seeking treatment might be beneficial for them, start a respectful and loving conversation. Ask how you can help. Bring Change 2 Mind has assembled a helpful guide for facilitating a conversation about mental illness. It suggests educating yourself before you engage in a conversation. The JED Foundation can also help you identify the warning signs of common emotional disorders.

One of the best things you can do is listen. Anna Quinlan shared her experience working for a suicide hotline, during which she learned the importance of listening rather than filling the silence. You can employ similar tactics when talking to someone about mental illness.

It’s always best to be nonjudgmental and support your loved ones to take action. Let them know that seeking treatment is courageous and a way for them to take control of their health.

Resources for Treatment

If you know someone who needs to seek treatment, you can help them start the search process. There are free online mental health screening assessments that can help you or your friend identify symptoms. For those seeking therapy, PsychologyToday allows you to search for a therapist by location, specialization, and treatment type. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are supportive environments for those dealing with a substance abuse issue. For those in crisis, there are hotlines available, such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8755. The nearest emergency room is also available for crisis treatment.

Eliminating the stigma won’t happen overnight. But the small changes you make to educate yourself and others will make a difference in the lives of those around you, especially those suffering most. We have the power and the tools to fight against stigma. This Mental Health Awareness Week. Let’s resolve to take one new step toward a positive change.