Combat stigma of mental illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, during which we advocate against the stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma is all around us. Where there are people, there is stigma. It is time to bring awareness to the stigma associated with mental illness.

There are two types of stigma. The first is social stigma, which is prejudicial attitudes and discriminating attitudes among people. The second is perceived or self-stigma, the internalizing by the mentally ill person of their perceptions of discrimination.

To understand both types of stigma, it helps to know how widespread mental illness is, as well as its impact. The National Institute of Mental Health says that 43.8 million adult Americans in any given year suffer from some type of mental disorder. Of these, 9.8 million experience a severe mental disorder that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Severe mental illness also occurs in the lifetime of approximately 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15. In youth ages 13 to 18 the rate of illness is 21.4 percent According to the Centers Disease Control, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States: the third leading cause for people ages 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.

The economic impact of untreated mental illness is huge. Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost wages per year.

Many people do not seek treatment for their mental illnesses because they fear the social stigma related to the illness. They fear losing work, housing, or the ability to live independently. They also fear less concrete consequences, such as being de-valued and ridiculed, being called names, and being bullied. The atmosphere of social stigma around people with mental illness causes a perceived stigma in which the ill person devalues him- herself, internalizes social cues around him or her, and applies the information to him-or herself. This results in low self-esteem and withdrawal from society. This can also lead to a worsening of symptoms and an impediment to recovery from the disease.

In many cases untreated mental illness leads to homelessness and/or imprisonment, leading to an increased level of stigma. According to the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimates 26 percent of homeless adults living in shelters live with mental illness. A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics sent to the U. S. Department of Justice states that approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition.

A powerful way to combat the stigma associated with mental illness is to learn about the disease. The first and most important fact is that it is a disease, and in that sense is no different than diabetes or cancer. The person with mental illness is no more responsible for the disease than any other sufferer of a medical condition. Individuals with mental illness need to be treated with the same compassion that is afforded to those with any other medical illness. The untreated or those early in the recovery process are far more likely to be victimized than they are to be a threat. Unless they told you, most of those in successful treatment could not be identified as such.

Fighting both of the types of stigma is paramount. To fight social stigma, we must:

¯ Educate ourselves, and understand that mental illness is a biological disease

¯ Watch our language. Be mindful of the impact of stigmatizing words, such as “wacko,” “nuts,” and “loony.”

¯ Use “person first” language. People are not just their diagnosis. For example, your neighbor is not a “schizophrenic.” He is a father, a gardener, a son, a lover of music, and also has lived with schizophrenia for many years. It is important to show at least this basic level of respect.

¯ Be compassionate to those who have mental illness.

¯ Encourage equality of attitudes and treatment opportunities for mental illness and other physical illnesses.

To combat self-stigma:

¯ Become educated about your own illness.

¯ Choose empowerment over shame.

¯ Be honest about treatment if at all possible.

¯ Let people, and the public in general, know when their attitudes and words are stigmatizing.

Stigma boils down to hate, prejudice, and discrimination. We as a society must do better to fight stigma with compassion, education, and love.

Brett Nicholas is a member of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board and chair of the Public Information & Education Committee.