Ending the stigma: Mental health misconceptions

COMMENTARY BY
JACK FLYNN

Stigma is defined as a sign of discredit or disgrace, which sets a person apart from others. It is a mark of shame that is burdensome for the carrier. The heavy weight rests upon that person’s shoulders. It weighs one down with every motion. Each step throughout the day is a combination of pain and discomfort. Living with a mental illness is no easy task. Being disgraced, excluded and vilified for a disease is worse.

Lack of awareness and basic information about mental illness is a critical problem. The absurdity of this blatant lack of knowledge becomes apparent when one understands the facts. One in five people live with a mental disorder. Also, estimates indicate that nearly two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment. When you factor in people who refuse to seek help, the numbers bump up to one in four. Apparently, having a quarter of the nation’s population afflicted with a variety of brain diseases is nothing to worry about.

Why should we worry? The consensus in the U.S. is that it is the fault of the afflicted anyway. They are just crazy fools who were raised by terrible parents, did too many drugs or have massive character flaws. Simply put, they are weak individuals without the wherewithal to handle real life. You have depression? Get over it. Man up, you can will it away. Anxiety? There is nothing to worry about, you do not have a problem. Why can you not act normal? There is no reason to be nervous. The funny thing about the consensus is that it is based off of nothing. A person cannot will away a deficiency in serotonin levels. They cannot just forget a chemical imbalance and act “normal.” People who spew ignorant vomit about mental health do not understand because they have not been taught. It is not talked about. It is taboo.

Occasionally, mental health does get some notice. The 24/7 news cycle will sometimes run stories; however, they are almost never positive. It is yellow journalism at its finest, where the cameras focus on the blood and tragedy and the news anchor’s purpose is to vilify and boost ratings. Proper information is hardly given. Plus, the emphasis of the story seems to conveniently switch to something political. In the wake of such tragedies such as those in Newtown and Aurora politicians highlighted gun control, whether they were for or against. Little was said about the mental states of the perpetrators. It did not matter. They were crazy. According to these astute minds, it was either the gun’s fault or the teacher’s error for not having a pistol. Mention of whether proper mental health services were available was not necessary. It did not matter; he was a loner who played violent video games. Of course he was dangerous.

It is truly no wonder that the stigma of the mentally ill is so harsh. The only coverage dedicated is when violence is involved. Yet the magnitude of the relationship between violence and mental illness is greatly exaggerated. Most people who are violent do not have a mental disorder. It is worth noting that only a small proportion of violence can be associated to those who are mentally ill; however, the public is mainly ignorant of this. They only see danger and feel fear.

In essence, the stigma and misconceptions are almost as dangerous as the conditions. These are serious brain diseases that must be properly treated. Misinformation and discrimination driven by fear are not solutions to creating a society with profound awareness and treatment of mental health issues. They are diseases just like cancer or diabetes. The patients are not second-rate citizens.

Let us face it: rock bottom is a dark, dark place. People with mental illness need help, not scorn and prejudice. Helping hands need to be given freely. Fear must be replaced with empathy, hostility substituted with kindness. The battles these men and women face are beyond comprehension unless personally experienced. It is not easy to grasp months without happiness. It is hard to grapple with strange voices constantly chattering. It is not easy to understand the plague of suicidal thoughts weaving in and out of one’s head. It is not easy to relate to the degradation of being institutionalized against one’s will because of the actions against themselves. The stigma and misconceptions need to end. Life with mental illness is tough enough.

Contact the writer:
jack.flynn@scranton.edu

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