Injured, Not “Nuts” – The MH ‘Stigma’
August 21, 2006 — – According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 26% of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. That means 1 in 4 – or 57.7 million individuals – battle some form of psychiatric disorder. This illness affects a staggering number of people. So, why does nobody know the truth?
The biggest hurdle to achieving overall better mental heath is the stigma surrounding mental illness. Myths and stigmas plague the acknowledgement and recovery of these disorders. Contrary to what you may believe, psychiatric disorders cannot be controlled or mediated by the patient. They are legitimate medical injuries. They require acknowledgement, assessment and treatment, much like any other physical ailment does. Finally, most mental illnesses can be treated.
Sadly, the prevalence of these life-shattering disorders is much more significant than we care to recognize. Mental illnesses are the leading cause of disability in the United States. The financial burden of these illnesses outweighs that of all cancers combined. The excuse, it doesn’t affect me. cannot be applied. Through association, every single person will come in contact with some sort of psychiatric disorder at some time. For instance, your father might be diagnosed with Depression, your child might struggle with an Anxiety disorder and your lab partner might battle Psychosis.
Mental Illness is a large overarching category that includes many types of psychiatric disorders. Probably the most well-known group of mental injuries is called Mood Disorders. Mood Disorders include major depressive disorders, dysthymic disorders and bipolar disorders and affect 10% of the population. Being the complex conditions that it is, a mood disorder often coexists alongside other illnesses. Anxiety and substance abuse often accompany depression.
While mood disorders are widespread, anxiety disorders are even more common. Over 18% of Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder and most cases take root before the age of 21. Generally, experiencing moments of fear, anxiousness or nervousness is part of everyone’s life, on occasion. However, people suffering from an anxiety disorder will be swamped with intense and prolonged feelings of fear, distress, unease and paranoia for no apparent reason. These disorders tend to more common in women than men. Unfortunately, their presence among children and youth is steadily on the rise. As well, instances of war-related stress disorders have contributed to the rise of anxiety injuries in America. Phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are all characterized as Anxiety Disorders.
Overall, the most common serious mental illnesses are schizophrenia, depression and manic depression. What qualifies them as “serious” is the fact that they are less “episodic” than many of the other disorders. These illnesses tend to be severely intense, constant and often lead to suicide.
Other mental illnesses include Eating Disorders, which affect 8% of the population, Schizophrenia, which impacts 1% of Americans, and Psychosis. Also, Autism and Attention Deficit Disorders are quite common among children. One of the most shattering repercussions of mental illness is how silently it attacks. Obviously, since these disorders are injuries of the mind and not the external physical body, they are difficult to detect. Mental Disorders are also silent in the way they are approached with shame, denial and secrecy. For some reason, it is considered dishonorable, weak and weird to admit to a mental illness. Roughly half of individuals battling depression or anxiety have never seen a doctor about their illness.
Left undiagnosed and untreated, many mental disorders can lead to thoughts of self-harm and even suicide. In 2002, 31,655 people died of suicide in the United States. Tellingly, 90% of those who commit suicide are suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder. Imagine dealing with such inner pain that you felt the only escape was to end your own life. As a culture, we do not imagine ourselves in that situation nearly enough. We fail to recognize mental illness as a valid medical problem. Even worse, we perpetuate the cycle of stigma and myth through our vocabulary and media portrayals.
A psychiatric disorder is not the ‘fault’ of the individual suffering from it. Conversely, a mental illness is the product of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors combined in a complex mix. People who suffer from mental illnesses are not, as a group, more violent than any other social category. Contrary to myth, patients are not less wealthy or less intelligent than individuals without a disorder. Developing a mental illness has nothing to do with personal weakness or lack of will-power.
Media outlets are one of the most destructive players in creating a warped image of mental illness. Most times, patients with mental disorders are portrayed as violent, dangerous and unstable. These representations are unrealistic and negatively stereotypical. Images, headlines and characters relating to mental illness are used for shock value and entertainment. The misleading presentation of these individuals in the media only strengthens the myths and stigma of mental disorders.
These myths contribute to the spinning of a web of lies that fabricate the corrupt image of mental illness. A deep-rooted fear prevents those suffering from coming forward for treatment. A culturally-perpetuated stigma keeps those battling illnesses shrouded in shame. When will this medical disorder receive the attention, acceptance and serious respect is so desperately requires? Mental illnesses are legitimate medical injuries. People living with these illnesses are not ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ or ‘wacko’. It’s about time we embrace diagnosis and treatment. After all, injured is the correct medical term, not “nuts”.
Emily Smit, Julien Lambert are producers at MyHealthVideo.com featuring video interviews of health professionals.
Julien, Emily and Ken are producers at TheWebVideo.com, a web site featuring news, articles and videos on health, politics and environmental topics.
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