When will we get rid of the stigma on mental illness?

When will we get rid of the stigma on mental illness?

Arriving to work on time after a tough morning can be a trip. As you dash into the break room to grab a quick coffee, you run into your co-worker who you greet with a smile, but she doesn’t seem to respond positively. A few minutes later, you run into her again, but see a

Arriving to work on time after a tough morning can be a trip. As you dash into the break room to grab a quick coffee, you run into your co-worker who you greet with a smile, but she doesn’t seem to respond positively. A few minutes later, you run into her again, but see a smile on her face with a totally different attitude. She seems to be a completely different person than the one you saw moments ago. The same thing happens again the following days, leaving you puzzled. You start to think it’s her mood pattern, so you then decide to limit your interaction with your co-worker, avoiding an unnecessary conflict. Another option is to try to understand what she might be going through and use some patience.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation and most likely you will, then trying to use your patience option would be your kind bet. Judging your co-worker or thinking she is rude is not going to make things better at your work place. Many of us are going to experience some sort of mental illness in our life span however if we are lucky to be surrounded by an understanding society, then we will not fall a victim of the so called social stigma of mental health, a situation in which our misconceptions and stereotypes regarding mental illness affect our behavior and attitudes toward people who have it.

We are largely affected by what we see and hear in media. Movies, for example, often portray characters who suffer from mental illness as bizarre personalities with a great tendency to display unpredictable behavior. The symptoms of mental disorders presented in movies are usually not very accurate and mostly exaggerated to serve up drama.

A few years ago, the nation was shocked with the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty children and six adults were killed; the shooter, who killed himself at the scene, was identified as Adam Lanza, a young adult male suffering from mental illness. A few days, a mother (Liza Long) who is struggling with her son’s mental illness, created a blog that later became very popular and went viral everywhere, titled “I am Adam Lanza’s mom.” Throughout her blog, ‘Long’ explains the journey she is going through to treat her son and the stigma she faces every day. She also talks about the flaws in law regarding mental health care.

One day, her son threatened to kill himself If he didn’t get his electronics back, as he was grounded for using inappropriate language with his mom. In another incident, he pointed a knife at her during a morning argument before school bus arrived. Every time, she would call police, manage to take her son to the ER where they would put him under observation for a few hours and send him back home. She wrote on her blog, “When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

“I don’t believe my son belongs in jail,” she said. “The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology.

But it appears the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise. In fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

Moreover, the stigma on mental health issues doesn’t only end at the social level; it extends to reach the professional level as well. For example, it is commonly agreed on at hospitals emergency rooms that once a patient is admitted in, he or she should be put under a number of restrictions until proven not dangerous.

However, even though there are many stereotypes about mental health and people who have problems with it, there also is a big confusion about who is really mentally ill and who is not. For example, people who pose imminent threat to the society, such as terrorists, could also be seen as some sort of mentally ill people.

In fact, in a recent study published by Psychology Today (Sept. 2014) author Steve Taylor claims that even though we cannot argue terrorists are mentally unstable, they lack a very significant personal trait that any mentally stable person should acquire. They simply lack empathy towards others.

“It’s a mistake to simply label terrorists as ‘evil,’ or psychologically deranged – in fact, psychologists who have studied terrorist groups have found that terrorists tend to be stable individuals, not paranoid or delusional. What seems to make terrorists essentially different from others is their ability to ‘switch off’ their sense of empathy in service to their beliefs and goals,” Taylor said. “If you lack the ability to empathize, then it’s very likely that you could be labeled a psychopath.”

I disagree with Taylor; I strongly feel they are nothing but evil. But I agree with the fact that they all have severe psychopathology and that, unfortunately, they need our help.

Therefore, the implications of mental health stigma are huge not just on patients but also on society. If you think about it, people with mental health problems not only have to deal with their illness and society’s misconceptions about them, but also the prejudice resulted in limited opportunities for them in terms of jobs, housing, love and relationships, this itself may explain what recent statistics show that 1 in 5 Americans have mental illness, but only one-third of such a population actually seek treatment for their diagnosis.

In the U.K., people are starting to realize the significance of such stigma on their lives, a major campaign called “Time for a change” has been established to fight stigma through educating the public about mental health definitions. Here at home, NAMI and similar organizations are trying to do the same thing.

Although I believe it is time for a total mental health system reform, I don’t believe it is going to be achieved merely through a campaign. We are in need of a change in our perception of mental illness as a society. A change that is brave enough to erase the stigma. Support the system and give a hand to those in need of help. Perhaps we all need to play a role. But if you can’t play one, at least use some patience and treat others with compassion. For everyone you meet can be fighting a battle!

By Mona Hassan

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