About one in four American adults ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Mental illnesses such as mood disorders are prevalent throughout societies around the world, yet these disorders largely remain hidden behind smiling faces and closed doors. Mood disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar, and obsessive compulsive disorder are just a few common mental illnesses that people in general try to avoid discussing at all costs. Why does a stigma exist around mental illness? Why are those stigmas so difficult to remove? The struggles people face when living with mood disorders or other mental illnesses are real. How they relate to the world and how they relate to others are challenges they face daily. The concept of confiding in others regarding their condition is a complex issue, as the stigmas that are present create problems and build walls.
What exactly is a stigma? According to the renowned Mayo Clinic, a stigma “is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype).” There is a general stigma around mental illness, because people view those with the illness as either shameful, weak or threatening.
Being cognizant of the stigmas associated with mental illness will not only open doors for those who suffer, but will also provide a sense of comfort for those who find people with mental disorders wrongfully dangerous.
What are some ways we can do this?
We could start by promoting awareness about the misconceptions that come along with a mental disorder. Many people struggle to accept the harsh realities of mental illness while those that have them have no choice but to. Some simply do not care enough about understanding the challenges those afflicted must face, and the stigma makes it difficult for people to make quicker recoveries and pose a greater challenge to function in their daily lives.
Having a mood disorder can interfere with people’s daily lives and how they function in a way that can be difficult to imagine.
A BBC documentary titled “Diaries of a Broken Mind” portrayed the daily lives of young people struggling with mood disorders in the U.K. One young woman in the documentary struggled with depression and had extreme agoraphobia. Her condition prohibited her from leaving her house for months. Think about that for a minute. Months.
If she did leave the house, she had to carry beta-blockers and a gas mask in case of a panic attack. The phobia had suddenly appeared at the age of 23 and began to manifest in her daily life. She had to heavily rely on her boyfriend to take care of errands that required leaving her home. The uncommon dynamic of their relationship further fueled her anxiety, as she came to terms with the fact that her boyfriend had become her caretaker. The existence of the stigmas already associated with mental illnesses would make it more difficult for her to leave the house, for fear of public embarrassment if she were to have a panic attack.
Another young woman in the documentary suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder, where she was extremely afraid of what people would think of her, and had trouble being in social situations, which further perpetuated her fear of what people would think if she didn’t go to certain social events. If the stigma were removed, both of these young women in the documentary, as well as many more individuals in the world, men included, would not feel as isolated and may even recover more quickly knowing there is a community of support present for them.
Why do people give more attention to broken limbs than a “broken” mind?
While they may be two different things, one being more noticeable than another, they are similar in many ways. Having a broken leg makes it difficult to walk, which makes it harder for daily functioning and leaving the house. Having a mental disorder also makes daily living a daunting task and leaving the house a major challenge. People with mental illness are afraid of public embarrassment or of a million things that could go wrong when they leave the comfort of their home. Yet, those with broken legs will more likely than not leave the house because they know that people are out there to help them when they are in need, being that their disability is visually apparent. Those with mental illnesses, however, are not so lucky. They, on the other hand, are not confident that others will come to their aid, let alone understand their disability. Often times, many instead cast judgment, and assumptions are made.
The all too common thinking and rationality sounds a little like this:
“That person is crazy, that person is faking it, that person is clearly trying to get attention.” But how can one be so sure?
The reason that this stigma exists is largely due to shame, felt both for the person that is suffering, as well as those that surround them.
In two identical UK public opinion surveys over a span of 10 years, 80% of people endorsed the statement that “most people are embarrassed by mentally ill people” and about 30% agreed with the statement “I am embarrassed by mentally ill persons.” Much of this embarrassment stems from secrecy. Those who are associated with or related to a person with mental illness hide it from others for fear of being associated with such a stigma. Many also hide their illness from employers or professionals for fear of not getting a job or fear of being exploited.
If there were an open line of dialogue about these conditions, more people would realize that those with these mental conditions could be as normal as any person out there, and that they need all the support they can get.
Exposing more of the general population to the severity of symptoms for people with mental illness can foster a greater sense of empathy and support. Perhaps too often we associate mental illness with the image of a person cursed with mental retardation. They most certainly are not the same. Those who are mentally ill can usually blend well into society, depending on which disorder we are talking about.
The next time you hear about someone who has a mental illness, sit and listen rather than flee. Try to understand the struggles they are facing. Your sympathy alone can be supportive and the fact that you continue to see them as a human being will be a wonderful sight for them to behold.