Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

Amy Julian

Consider this: a 40-year-old woman with cancer is battling for her life. What are your immediate feelings towards this woman? If you are like most, you feel empathy, sorrow, and a willingness to help.

Now, picture a 40-year-old woman who has been diagnosed with severe psychosis. Any thoughts now?

If, again. you are like most, you may roll your eyes or not see the severity of such a diagnosis. Cancer, after all, is far more “serious” than psychosis, right? Wrong. A stigma surrounding mental illness has been perpetuated by the lack of good available information. Its sufferers are often simply written off by society as “nuts”. We rightly place huge emphasis in October on breast cancer awareness, but we oftentimes forget to acknowledge silent epidemics plaguing our nation, like mental illness, year-round. My aunt had breast and ovarian cancer and died from the disabling and traumatic illness, so I am in no way lessening the impact cancer (of any kind) can have on one’s life. I am, however, calling for the destigmatization of mental illness.

No one would call someone a “faker” if they had cancer; why then, is it so easy to call someone a “lunatic” or “whack job” if they suffer from mental disorder? You can point a finger at a tumor, but not a chemical imbalance or a faulty limbic system. The damage a “physical” disease has on a person does not surpass the psychic effects of mental illness. It’s not a matter of which is worse or which is more serious, but of comparing apples to oranges.

The term “mental illness” itself conjures images of padded cells and straight jackets. We all have internal dialogue, but if you refer to them as “voices” in your head you are labeled “insane”. This stigma surrounding mental health has engrained in many people a sense of shame surrounding their issues. Mentally ill individuals are ashamed to be different, ashamed to be dysfunctional, and often do not seek the medical and emotional treatment they need. Not entering treatment, as we see evident of suicide and self-mutilation, can prove fatal. Without treatment, the “mentally ill” person feels alone and isolated, further enabling mental decline.

Even if you think you don’t hold a bias or don’t mock mental illness, social attitudes give rise to subtle ridicule of the mentally compromised. Every time I hear someone refer to themselves as “OCD” because they like to keep a clean room or get all A’s, it saddens me to think that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may be looked at as less of a serious disorder than others. Mocking or calling someone an “anorexic bitch” simply because they look skinny, without knowing their history or personal struggles, further enables society to place less focus on combating mental illness. OCD and anorexia are diseases, and nothing to be taken lightly.

Having a stigma, or a negative stereotype, on anything is enough to create a shame around something. Sometimes it may be good, like the stigma surrounding gang members-such a negative stigma from the outside world may deter people from pursuing gang status. It is the uncontrollable stigmas, those that surround issues that we cannot help, that hold us back from achieving a more aware society.

I was talking with a fellow classmate after a discussion about racism and sexism. She said that people are less tolerant of racism now, and it is less acceptable to call someone the N-word or a woman by a derogatory name, since being black or female are not matters of choice. But how many people wake up in the morning and say, “I want to be severely depressed, lose all my friends, lose my job, live in fear, starve myself, and feel like I’m dying today”? Mental illness, like race or gender, is something we do not choose. It is not something we have control over, unless we take control over the illness by entering treatment. A cancer patient needs chemo to the same extent a manic-depressive patient needs treatment. It’s life or death.

Mental illness is lonely enough. Being in your own head, hearing voices, being berated by your own self; mental illness can drive people, well, crazy. It is up to us as a society to lift the stigma surrounding the mentally ill and treat those who suffer from mental illness as we treat those who suffer from cancer: with compassion and empathy.