Mental illness affects one in four adults — about 26.2 percent of people over the age of 18. That means in your lifetime, there is a high probability that you will meet, interact, work with, or know someone with a diagnosable mental illness — anything from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

 

In my experience, by telling people this horrifying statistic, they cringe at the knowledge that someone with a mental illness is in their midst — as if I were telling them there is a 25 percent chance there is a bogey-man in their closet.

 

It is no secret that there is a stigma attached to mental illness. I think we can all agree that our first reaction to hearing that a potential employee, a friend, a significant other, or even a family member has a mental illness is that of wariness. Our reaction is much different than that of hearing that someone has a physical illness such as cancer, heart disease, or even diabetes.

 

Most mental illness — and I say most simply because of the complexity of mental illness — derives from a chemical imbalance in the brain. This chemical imbalance can be cause by a variety of reasons: genetics, external events and how the brain adapts, and even unavoidable physical forces (such as the brain not developing properly).

 

Ruby Wax, TedTalks 2012 (thoughtyoushouldseethis.com)

In short, mental illness is absolutely not a choice. It is out of the patients control, just as it is with cancer, heart disease, or even diabetes. Yet for some reason, we have attached this logic that those with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are choosing to act in such a way. Some think, “yeah, I would like to lay in bed all day, but I have to make a living, so I go to work.” Not realizing that those with depression have an illness — a debilitating chemical imbalance — that leaves them unable to do so.

 

Simply put, people react to mental illness as if it is a choice, as if it is all in their head, and with a little change in thinking, everything will be better. Either that, or the conventional, cold idea those with mental illness are crazy and should be locked away from the general public.

 

This leads to two stigmas that are a hot topic of research in journals in the psychology community: the public stigma and self-stigma.

 

The Public Stigma:

According to an article in the World Psychiatry Journal by Patrick Corrigan and Amy C Watson, “Stigmas about mental illness seem to be widely endorsed by the general public in the Western world… even well-trained professionals from most mental health disciplines subscribe to stereotypes about mental illness”

 

There are three main public stigmas that are attached to those with mental illness. The first is “fear and exclusion: persons with severe mental illness should be feared and, therefore, be kept out of most communities.” The second is, “authoritarianism: persons with severe mental illness are irresponsible, so life decisions should be made by others.” The third and last stigma is, “benevolence: persons with severe mental illness are childlike and need to be cared for.”

 

These stigmas are detrimental to those in need of psychiatric help. People are less likely to react with pity and more with anger, believing that help is not deserved. Corrigan and Watson then cite the four ways in which people react to mental illness based on the public stigma they subscribe to: “The behavioral impact (or discrimination) that results from public stigma may take four forms: withholding help, avoidance, coercive treatment, and segregated institutions.”

 

Self-Stigma:

A New State Of Mind: Ending The Stigma Of Mental Illness (EachMindMatters.org)

None of the reactions people have from public stigma will actually help those with mental illness. If anything, this typically will make it harder for those with mental illness to seek out help, and more likely to allow the illness to fester and grow, getting worse as time goes on (or just never getting better).

 

While it is true that the public stigma might deter those to seek help as well as lower their self-esteem and self-worth, there is also evidence that the public stigma angers those who experience mental illness. This encourages patients to become a part of the solution, advocating for better programs and engaging in their treatment more readily.

 

These two opposing reactions in those with mental illness creates a fundamental paradox: “Models that explain the experience of self-stigma need to account for some persons whose sense of self is harmed by social stigma versus others who are energized by, and forcefully react to, the injustice.” There is, however, a third reaction, in which the public stigma creates no reaction in the patient whatsoever. This all depends on the situation, and the unique disposition that any one given person experiences with their mental illness.

 

However, the problem itself lies not on those with mental illness, as much as it does with the public stigma. There are a few key ways we can work together to eliminate the public stigma, and have the opportunity to ensure that those with mental illness can get the care they deserve, and live the life they want.

 

There are three approaches to changing the public stigma: education, contact, and protest.

 

The particular approach I am taking in order to do my part in relieving some of the public stigma is education. “Research, for example, has suggested that persons who evince a better understanding of mental illness are less likely to endorse stigma and discrimination.”

 

Talk About Mental Health (jbfcs.blogspot.com)

Protest, however, is a reaction to the stigma. While it helps to diminish the negative outlook on mental illness, it does not put positive messages out there. Most of the time, the messages that are sent out through protest are those like, “stop reporting inaccurate representations of mental illness,” and “stop believing negative views about mental illness.”

 

The most effective approach is when those who subscribe to the public stigma interact with those who are diagnosed with mental illness that lead fairly normal lives: “Research has shown an inverse relationship between having contact with a person with mental illness and endorsing psychiatric stigma.”

 

Things are looking up. Last year, President Obama called on celebrities like Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close to advocate for those with mental illness, and encourage those with mental illness to reach out for help. However, the argument was made that the government needs to create more programs in order for people to do so.

 

Ted Talks have also been a huge help, as this platform is perfect for getting unpopular ideas and cutting edge research a public platform to bring about education and awareness. Two Ted Talks that deal closely with this issues are those from Ruby Wax and Thomas Insel.

 

So go out there, do the research, and do not run away from those with mental illness; approach them with compassion and care. Together, we can make a difference!

 

What do you think of mental illness and the stigma attached to it? Have you experienced either of the two stigma or seen someone experience it? How will you change your behavior toward mental illness after reading this article? What questions do you still have about mental illness? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me your thoughts @kateeb790!