Mental illness has long remained a topic that many seem to be clueless about and one that has been stigmatized and stereotyped. After all, we all seem to know what to do or where to go when faced with physical illnesses; we all seem to understand that getting a fever or a cold is no reason to judge someone, yet the same can’t be said for mental disorders. This misconception creates a necessity to become more informed on the topic so as to break the taboo that has caused many individuals with psychological disorders to be discriminated against and thus stay away from treatments that could be beneficial to them.
What is mental illness?
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a “health condition involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior (or a combination of these).” Mental illness can cause problems in your day to day life and might make you miserable. Yet in most cases, symptoms can be managed with psychotherapy, a combination of medication and talk therapy. Examples of mental illness include anxiety disorder, depression, OCD, and schizophrenia.
Although many people experience or will experience concerns related to their mental health, these only become an illness with ongoing symptoms that cause frequent stress and affect one’s ability to function. Furthermore, some mental illness such as phobias can be mild and interfere in limited ways in daily lives, while others can be severe and might require hospitalization.
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Director-General of WHO, has said that “Mental illness is not a personal failure.” While many of those who suffer from such conditions are often forced into self-blame, it is important to recognize that this common misconception is incorrect.
Mental Illness: a widespread phenomenon
The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that currently, 450 million people suffer from mental illness, putting it among the leading causes of disability. The WHO has further concluded that approximately one in four people will be affected by neurological or mental disorders at some point in their life.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It can affect anyone regardless of their economic status, race, culture, gender, age, religion, or background. In fact, a wide range of celebrities have admitted to having struggled with mental illness throughout their life: from renowned author J.K Rowling to Beyonce; from television host Ellen DeGeneres to actor Dwayne Johnson; from swimmer Michael Phelps to Princess Diana.
Treatment of the mentally ill in the past
Throughout history, the mentally ill have been treated deplorably. In the medieval ages, those who were seen as abnormal were thought to be possessed by demons and were thus subject to a number of ‘treatments,’ including exorcism, incarceration, execution and trephining, which often resulted in death and consisted of making a small hole in the person’s skull in order to release the spirits.
By the eighteenth-century individuals with mental disorders were placed in asylums that focused not on treating them, but on ostracizing them from society. There they were chained, beaten, and kept in dungeons with little human contact.
Reformers such as french Philippe Pinel in the late 18th century and american Dorothea Dix, in the 19th century, argued for more humane treatment. And although their efforts did benefit the mentally ill, the conditions for many remained deplorable.
The 20th century featured significant improvements in the treatment of the mentally ill. In 1954 antipsychotic medications that helped control symptoms of certain disorders were introduced. In addition, in 1963 the United States passed the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act, which started the closing of large asylums and allowed people to be treated locally.
Treatment of the mentally ill in the present
Nowadays there are community mental health centers throughout many nations in the world, providing personalized treatment for countless of people. Yet high costs of psychiatric hospitalization have caused it to be out of reach for many, thus on average in America, those with serious disorders who choose to get treated at such facilities remain there for merely two weeks. Furthermore, the WHO reports that more than 40% of countries have no mental health policy and 25% of countries have no mental health legislation
Those with mental illness have to overcome two main hurdles: the symptoms associated with their disorder and the struggles of living in a society that stigmatizes and stereotypes their condition. Studies suggest that most citizens of American and several western countries, including professionals in the mental health industry, are prejudiced towards the mentally ill. In fact, the CDC reports that only one in four American adults believe that people are caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness.
Mental illness tends to be associated with criminals, drugs, and prostitution. Common stereotypes that have remained are the idea that the mentally ill are maniacs, the belief that they are childlike, and the notion that they have a weak character and are thus responsible for their illness.
This stigma has ensured that, while some do have treatments available, around two-thirds of those with mental illness don’t seek help from a professional. Furthermore, a disparage exists between the types of mental disorders that get treated. For example, the CDC explains that children with a conduct disorder such as ADHD are more likely to be treated than children with anxiety. Moreover, the stigma has robbed those with mental illness from factors that are associated with a good life: they are overrepresented in probation and parole institutions, and around 26% of homeless adults living in shelters experience mental disorders.
Breaking the taboo of mental illness
Throughout history we have seen a massive improvement in the treatment of the mentally ill, it is thus not only necessary but possible to break the taboo associated with mental illness and increase the quality of life of those with disorders. A report by Patrick W Corrigan and Amy C Watson from the University of Chicago Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research explains that strategies to break the stigma can be grouped into three categories:
- Protesting the misconceptions of mental disorders sends two messages. On one hand, it tells the media to stop the inaccurate representation, and on the other hand, it tells the population at large to change their stereotypes. Although there is little empirical research on the psychological effects of protest campaigns, anecdotal evidence does suggest that protests have been responsible for a decrease in public encounters with stigmatizing images.
- Education allows the public to make informed decisions on mental disorders. Research suggests that this has helped reduce stigmatization.
- Meeting people with mental illness who are able to have a good job and be good citizens and neighbors has shown to have an inverse relationship with endorsing the stigma.
Mental health during COVID-19
Pandemics are stressful phenomenon that may increase anxiety. Fear for family members or for one’s own life only increases the need to both break the mental illness taboo, and practice good mental health. In order to cope with this added stress, the CDC has recommended you take the following measures:
How to Cope with Stress During COVID-19
- Limit your exposure to news: constantly hearing about the pandemic can add more stress
- Take care of your body: exercise, try to eat healthily, sleep enough and avoid alcohol and drugs
- Spend time doing activities that you enjoy
- Talk to others: whether it be in-person interactions with your family members that are currently living with you or cell phone calls. Reach out to those people you care about and tell them how you are feeling
- If stress gets out of hand, call your healthcare provider
- If you have pre-existing mental conditions, continue your treatment, and inform your healthcare provider of any worsening symptoms.
If you are seeking to support a loved one, check-in with them often and ask them how they are feeling, you can use a cellphone, email, or even mail.
If your loved one is experiencing severe mental disorders, whether it be pre-existing or not, call a healthcare provider. And if you think you or your loved one may attempt suicide or hurt yourself/themselves, call 911 or a suicide hotline immediately.
Throughout history, the mentally ill have been treated deplorably. Yet our current treatment of the mentally ill leaves much to be desired. A taboo about the mental illness topic has kept many from mental health services and caused countless to experience discrimination that affects their daily life. Thus, it is essential to break the taboo and practice good mental health.
Corrigan, Patrick W, and Amy C Watson. “Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People with Mental Illness.” World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), Masson Italy, Feb. 2002, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1489832/.
Kobau, Zack, et al. “Attitudes towards mental illness.” Centers for Disease Control and prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/Mental_Health_Reports/pdf/BRFSS_Full%20Report.pdf
“Mental Disorders Affect One in Four People.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 29 July 2013, http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/.
“Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19.” Stress and Coping, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Apr. 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.
“Mental Health Treatment: Past and Present.” Introduction to Psycology, Lumen, courses.lumenlearning.com/wsu-sandbox/chapter/mental-health-treatment-past-and-present/.
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Roberts, Kayleigh. “39 Celebrities Who Have Opened Up About Mental Health.” Harper’s BAZAAR. Harper’s BAZAAR, January 15, 2018. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/g15159447/celebrities-depression-anxiety-mental-health/.
What Is Mental Illness?, American Psychiatric Association, http://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness.
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