I believe that I am a fearless writer.
I share my personal experiences, thoughts and beliefs. I’ve not been afraid to express my emotions. Self-expression is fundamental to writing. I am a man of my words
Recently, I became concerned that my blogs about depression and mental health might shape my reader’s opinions of me in a negative way. The more I thought about it, I realized that I had internalized the stigma that surrounds mental health.
Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace or infamy.” The word bears a negative connotation and it devalues the person to whom the stigma is applied. While the conversation about mental health is receiving a larger forum, damaging misconceptions are widespread.
According to surveys, there are between 42.5 to 46 million adults in the U.S. that have some type of mental illness. Statistics show that one in four adults experience mental illness in a given year. These numbers of individuals are all impacted in some manner by the stigma that still surrounds mental health. Some the harmful effects, as reported by the Mayo Clinic can be:
>>> Bullying, physical violence or harassment
>>> Reluctance to seek help or treatment for mental illness conditions
>>> Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others you know
>>> Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover your mental health illness treatment
>>> The belief that you’ll never be able to succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation
>>> Fewer opportunities for work, school, or social activities or trouble finding housing
The stigma exists because of a lack of understanding, knowledge and education about mental illness. The stereotypes are further reinforced by the images and representations we see in the media. We think of electroshock therapy, padded cells, lobotomies, straight jackets and leather restraints. Movie villains are always portrayed as crazy, sadistic, psycho killers, and that further shapes the public’s perception of violent behavior and mental illness.
There is an overwhelming impression that people diagnosed as bipolar or schizophrenic have violent tendencies. While some of these individuals could be predisposed to erratic behavior, most people with mental health conditions are far more dangerous to themselves.
Patients with mental illness are perceived as weak, feeble-minded or lacking strength of character. Some of the words used to describe people with mental health conditions are: “insane,” “crazy,” “lunatic,” “psycho.” All these derogatory terms are wrong and help promote the stigma. Like most diseases, mental illnesses are no one’s fault.
The conversation needs to change, and we all need to be aware that mental health conditions are just as common as any other health issue. It is no different than someone having cancer, diabetes or arthritis. It might not have the same outward physical component as a broken leg, but it is still a condition that affects the body.
The brain is our most complex organ. All the intricate chemical and electrical impulses associated with its function can break down. Mental illness is a brain disorder. Because of its complexity, research and medical treatments continue to evolve. Success rates rise as more is learned about genetics and the use of medications in treatment.
There are advocates that believe that mental health should not be singled out in its own category, but should be included in an overall health picture. Your brain is not a separate functioning organ, so why should any of its disorders be treated as removed from any other disease? Your body’s health issues don’t start below the neck.
For years, health insurance companies have treated mental illness as a completely separate part of their coverage with stringent restrictions and dollar limits. It fostered the perception that it was different from other health issues. Many people don’t realize that a law passed in 2008 began requiring insurance companies to treat mental and behavioral health and substance abuse disorder coverage equal to medial/surgical coverage.
The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act (known as the mental health law parity law or federal parity law) calls for insurers to treat financial requirements equally. This means that copays for a visit to a psychologist should not me more than medial office visit. The law does not require insurers to provide mental health benefits, but if the benefits are in place, they cannot be more restrictive than benefits for physical health.
There are some restrictions to the law on where and when it can be applied. For individuals who are unsure how it impacts them and the insurance coverage they have. Information on particular insurance plans can always be obtained through a person’s employer or direct contact to the insurance company.
Patients must learn to change their language in defining their conditions.
People are not their illnesses.
Someone wouldn’t say, “I’m a fractured tibia,” so individuals with a mental illness shouldn’t say “I’m bipolar.” They should say, “I have a bipolar disorder.” We should also eliminate the term “suffers form mental illness” and use “lives with or is affected by mental illness.”
By working to change the language surrounding the conditions, we can hopefully change the perceptions. National forums can help and several public figures have become advocates for combating mental illness stigmas.
Demi Lovato, a singer-songwriter, has launched the Be Vocal campaign to urge people affected by mental illness to share their stories. This is an anti-stigma initiative that hopes to promote understanding about mental health.
As reported in The Huffington Post, Demi states that, “There’s a lack of compassion for people who have mental illnesses and there’s a lot of judgment. Once you make people realize that mental illness can happen to anybody—and it’s not anybody’s fault—then I think they’ll become more understanding of what mental illness really is.”
Another public figure, Glenn Close, founded BringChange2Mind in 2009. Ms. Close’s sister has bipolar disorder and her nephew has a schizoaffective disorder. They wanted to open a conversation to end the stigma surrounding mental illness. The website bringchange2mind.org provides information, resources, stories and a blog to help educate and dispel myths about mental illness.
Part of a statement on the website clarifies what the stigmas does: The stigma around mental health most often leads to the inaccurate and hurtful objectification of people as dangerous and incompetent. The shame and isolation associated with stigma prevent people from seeking the help necessary to live healthy and full lives.
Former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk co-authored a book called The Crazy Game. In the book, he recounts his struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), attempted suicide and mental illness. As a public figure he showed courage to discuss his issues, and show people no matter where you are in your life, you can be affected by mental illness.
Malarchuk told Sports Reporter, Mark Zwolinski, in an interview, “I think it’s important for people to realize, that for me, in speaking about myself, it’s a chemical imbalance, no different than diabetes…I don’t produce enough serotonin. I’ve tried to emphasize that it’s not that you’re “mental” …I try to get around the stigmatization of the mental illness part, because it’s dealing with the imbalance in the brain, similar to what the pancreas is with diabetics.”
Through these champions of mental health issues, who are willing to speak out about their own experiences, much needed education will be provided. More people need to become advocates and vocalize their support for change and remove the stigma. Express opinions if you have a forum to communicate. You can send letters to Internet sites that want to share your story.
There is a national group, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), that offers programs combating stigma. It can provide support and courage to people with mental illness. It is only through repeated messages, ongoing education and advocacy that change can occur. Discussion lets people know they’re not alone, and should seek out help.
Words and actions are powerful and can create change. I declare myself an advocate for change. I will continue to combat the stigma, and I will make sure that my words deliver that message. No illness should define us, or should someone’s prejudice.
Author: Vince G. Sparks
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr