Fighting mental health stigma
Salina Journal - 5/8/2017
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 43 million American adults experienced mental illness in 2015 - about 18 percent of the adult population (this is roughly aligned with the proportion in Kansas). Moreover, almost 10 million adults (4 percent) reported a serious mental illness, which the National Survey on Drug Use and Health defines as a condition that results in “serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
This huge population of Americans with mental illness is made up of our neighbors, co-workers, closest friends and family members. Mental illness affects people in every corner of the country - regardless of their socioeconomic status, level of education, gender, race or practically any other demographic characteristic you can think of. These are the reasons why Mental Health Month - which has taken place every May since 1949 - is indispensable. It gives us ample opportunities to confront one of the most significant problems our society faces: the pervasive misconceptions about mental illness.
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these).” The words “health condition” are critical - as the APA notes, “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.” The former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas R. Insel, observes that all chronic diseases have biological and behavioral effects: “The only difference here is that the organ of interest is the brain instead of the heart or pancreas. But the same basic principles apply.”
Eric Kandel is a Nobel laureate and neuroscientist at Columbia University, and he makes the same point: “All mental processes are brain processes and, therefore, all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases.” Despite the clear logic behind these arguments - and all the data that support them (such as the genetic components of certain diseases and the demonstrable influence of abnormalities in the brain) - stigma remains one of the most incapacitating barriers for people with mental illnesses.
In 2013, a systematic literature review published in Administration and Policy in Mental Health found that “Children and adults endorsed stigmatizing beliefs of people with mental illness, especially the belief that such individuals are prone to violent behaviors.” Moreover, the authors point out that “beliefs of shame, blame, incompetency, punishment and criminality of people with mental illness are common.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness - which launched a national anti-stigma campaign (“StigmaFree”) in 2015 - explains that these beliefs can have destructive consequences: “People experiencing mental health conditions often face rejection, bullying and discrimination.”
For many people with mental illnesses, stigma is one of the main obstacles to pursuing treatment. When you consider the fact that less than half of American adults who suffer from mental health conditions get the help they need, it’s easy to see just how debilitating stigma can be.
According to NAMI, “The average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8 to 10 years.” While we should be discussing ways to bring these alarming numbers down year-round, Mental Health Month is a great time to start the conversation.