Do you have ten friends, family members, and co-workers? If you do, then two of them are experiencing a mental health condition this year. And of the 20 people around you, at least one has a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder, which is what I live with.
Despite those numbers, a large part of the population knows little to nothing about mental illness except what they see in the news, on television, or online. And, as you might guess, those portrayals are largely inaccurate.
What we see in the media teaches us to fear and hate the mentally ill. It says they are violent, incurable, homeless, suicidal, and dangerous. They are terrorists and mass shooters and need to be locked away for the rest of their lives.
Now think again about those ten or 20 people in your life. Do any of them fit that description? Probably not.
Those impressions are the result of stigma regarding the mentally ill. Here are some of the facts that can counter the stigma.
Anyone can have mental illness. From the woman who has PTSD after the trauma of a rape to the man who has depression that lasts years after his mother dies, to the person born with a tendency toward bipolar disorder (me), mental illness can be simply a fact of a person’s life that you most likely don’t even realize.
You can’t recognize the mentally ill just by looking at them. The wild, staring eyes, grimacing, and random outbursts are not the symptoms of most mental illnesses. Many people hide their conditions because of these stereotypes or the jokes told about “crazy people.”
Mental illness is often a lifelong condition. There is no “cure” for these conditions. With therapy, medication, and support from people like you, people with mental illness can achieve stability and relief from their disorder. But they will not “just snap out of it.”
Mentally ill people can live productive, useful lives. Many of them have friends, marry, have children (or not), work, go out in public, just like you (and me). Some may have difficulty with some of these activities, but they’re not always incapacitated. That’s another reason you can’t tell who’s mentally ill just by looking at them.
There are places where the mentally ill can get help. The mental health system, even more so than the regular healthcare system, is flawed and difficult to navigate. It is particularly difficult to find help in isolated, rural areas. There are not many beds for inpatients, emergency room treatment is often lacking, and the cost of treatment is prohibitive for many, especially those with no insurance. But community mental health centers with sliding fee scales do exist.
Stigma – false beliefs – about mental illness make people less likely to get help. If someone is mentally distressed but fears the stereotypes, he or she can be afraid to ask for help from a friend, relative, or even a doctor. The disorder may become worse, not better.
Just like the stigma regarding the homeless, the foreign-born, or the poor, mental illness stigma is pervasive and can be removed only by thought, discussion, and education.
Think about the people in your life. Might one or more of them be suffering in silence? Read books or magazines or newspaper articles or blogs (mine is bipolarjan.wordpress.com) about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, bulimia, or other conditions. Visit the websites of organizations that spread the word about mental illness and its treatment. (Some of them are listed below, along with some articles about mental illness and stigma.)
Most of all, talk to people. Some of us are open about our mental disorders and willing to help you understand yourself or a family member or friend better. Talk to the person you think may be in distress. He or she may share the false beliefs about mental illness. That’s right – the mentally ill themselves may give in to the stigma.
Care and improved treatment for the mentally ill – including the people in your life – will come only when we have erased the stigma that surrounds the topic.
Do your part.