Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed since 1949; and yet, mental illness is still poorly understood and highly stigmatized in our country today.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people continue to believe that psychiatric disorders are “made up,”” instead of viewing them as very real, potentially fatal, brain diseases. The truth is mental illness deeply impacts all aspects of a person’s life—their relationships, identity and behaviors.
Possibly the greatest hindrance to widespread understanding and acceptance of psychiatric disorders is that they cannot be seen physically (in many, but not all psychiatric illnesses). What’s more, unlike cancer or other medical diseases, mental illness cannot be identified via an x-ray or blood test. Therefore, a man hobbling on crutches with a broken leg is shown mercy; bystanders might assist by opening doors or carrying items. Conversely, a woman lying in bed with crippling depression is often extended no mercy whatsoever; instead, she is perceived of as lazy and is encouraged to snap out of it.
In fact, depression is very commonly misunderstood in today’s world, primarily by patients themselves who tend to blame themselves for having the illness or being lazy (these are distortions associated with the disease!), and also by the very people that are most supportive of those with other medical illnesses–doctors and family members.
Often a mother, father, wife or husband incorrectly uses themselves and their own life experiences as a unilateral barometer. They may recall times when they felt sorrow or despair in their own lives. In time, the sorrow passed or the despair lifted. In other words, they ultimately “got over it.” Therefore, the tendency is to apply this same standard to the loved one who seemingly can no longer function. The problem is, the standard is not applicable. The individual weighed down by clinical depression can no more resiliently bounce back than the other family member can fly. The bottom line is this: if they could, they would; but they can’t all on their own. Give the family member who can’t fly an airplane and a pilot and off they go. Give the family member with debilitating depression good care (therapy, medication, supportive community) and they can recover.
What an individual struggling with depression, anxiety, or any one of the other myriad psychiatric disorders truly requires is treatment; for many people this includes medication, which can help with the physical aspects of what the brain needs to recover from depression. Regrettably, due to the ongoing stigma associated with mental illness, people routinely fail to get the help they need. Sometimes they refuse to seek therapy due to the shame they feel about seeing a counselor or psychiatrist. Certain segments of the population are particularly vulnerable to this fear of stigma. Those in the military frequently go untreated due to the fear of jeopardizing their careers. Mothers, afraid their children might be taken away by a social service agency, are also often reluctant to seek care. Professionals many times avoid treatment because they have a career to tend to. Doctors and nurses do likewise because it’s their job to take care of others, not to receive care themselves.
Fortunately, due to initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness month, we have made strides in the area of eating disorders and substance use disorder. Today, the public has a greater understanding and appreciation for the complexity of these two illnesses. Now, if we can just promote greater comprehension surrounding other mental illnesses like depression and PTSD, perhaps the blame and stigma might be lifted and people could get the support they require and deserve.