May has been declared National Mental Health Awareness Month in our country. According to statistics, 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental health disease. One of the most disturbing facts about this statistic is that half of those affected by a mental illness do not receive the treatment that they need to be stable. According to studies, the primary reason that people give for not seeking treatment is the stigma associated with being “labeled mentally ill.”
Rhonda Smith, MSW, LCSW
What is “stigma?” “Stigma assumes many forms, both subtle and overt. It appears as prejudice and discrimination, fear, distrust, and stereotyping. It prompts many people to avoid working, socializing, and living with people who have a mental disorder. Stigma impedes people from seeking help for fear the confidentiality of their diagnosis or treatment will be breached. For our Nation to reduce the burden of mental illness, to improve access to care, and to achieve urgently needed knowledge about the brain, mind and behavior, STIGMA must no longer be tolerated” (U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, 1999).
What if there was a stigma for people who had a heart defect? Imagine that you found out that your heart was out of rhythm and you have to take medication for it. Now, imagine that people began to avoid you or talk to you as if you are a child. What if they suddenly became afraid of you and whispered about your weak heart as you walked by? Maybe you won’t get invited to social functions because of it. You are now perceived as weak and vulnerable. Your heart condition is not contagious, is it? Is there anything you could have done to prevent it? Nope, probably not. So why is everyone treating you like there is something wrong with you?
What makes your brain different from your heart? For some reason, there has always been some idea that mental illness equals a defect in character. Your brain is a very powerful and complex part of your body and there are times that things can go wrong or get off balance. We have up to 100 Billion neuronal connections in our brain, so it is not unlikely that there may be an occasional glitch.
We, as a society, need to do a better job of understanding each other when it comes to depression, anxiety, mood changes, stress management, anger, feelings, and even psychosis. We must educate ourselves, and each other, on what mental illness is and how to help those who battle it. Having a mental health issue is not something that anyone would choose, and it is definitely not a character or moral issue. Before you judge someone who tells you that they take an antidepressant or any other medication for their mental health, be careful that you do not assume what they may be going through.
The message that I hope to convey is that the brain is every bit as important as any other organ in the body and it is not immune to having a problem develop. Mental illness does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, gender, or how healthy your other organs may be. Be Kind, Always.