Mental Health Stigma

by Dr. Alexander Wright

Why are we so afraid of mental illness? Because we believe that mental illness is a weakness? Because we assume most people with mental illness are violent? Because we believe others will judge us? Unfortunately, the belief is often YES. And where are these dangerous beliefs derived from? They are founded in the precarious practice of ASSUMING that comes from:

  • A lack of government support manifested in laws and policies that don’t allow hospitals and other providers to make comprehensive assessments, provide proper care, and provide appropriate time periods of care.
  • A lack of education and subsequent understanding of the facts around mental health and mental illness that cultivates shame and reinforces stigma.
  • NOT enough conversation (especially truthful and informed conversation) about mental health that reinforces shame, stigma, and fear.
  • The too often false portrayals of mental illness depicted in certain sensationalized media venues.

Please do not get me wrong; I am very grateful for and extremely proud of every past and present organization, scientist, pioneer, advocate, and person who has and continue to contribute and provide a voice for improved physical health awareness and care. I am one of those ambassadors. Cancer and heart disease are the leading causes of death in this country. But suicide is also in the top 10. And research shows a very close relationship between the most deadly physical conditions such as cancer/heart disease and mental health conditions such as depression. The body cannot be well unless the mind is well. And the mind cannot be well unless the body is well. The conversations about mental health require a much more persistent, powerful, and present voice that starts at the top and echoes it’s way down to every resident of this planet. And why? The list is long but I will provide you a brief snapshot.

  • People experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions too often choose to live in shame instead of seeking treatment.
  • A study (2006) revealed that only 30% of Americans would be willing to socialize with someone who suffered from depression.
  • The same study revealed that 70% of Americans saw depressed individuals as violent towards themselves and 32% of Americans saw depressed individuals as violent towards others.
  • Government barriers for mental health care are significantly high, which reinforces the stigma and compromises proper care.
  • From January through April 2013, the U.S. Military reported 161 suicides among active-duty troops, reserve, and the National Guard. That is one suicide every 18 hours for the first 4 months of 2013.
  • On average, there are 117 suicides per day in the United States.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health has reported that people with mental illness wait approximately a decade to get treatment after experiencing their first symptoms.

Remember, this is only a snapshot. And on a personal note, when I suffered from migraine headaches as a child, we spoke freely and regularly about it at home, in school, and among other family and friends. And then when I suffered from panic attacks and chronic anxiety as an adolescent and young adult, most would shy away from me when I so much as mentioned it. And by the way, I still do experience anxiety—after all, I’m human. False beliefs about mental illness are extremely dangerous and problematic on so many levels. Be brave: Raise your voice, ask questions, and don’t be ashamed. Vulnerability is not weak. On the contrary, it is quite courageous.