We stigmatize disorders of the brain, but not other organs of the body. Why?
A teenage girl saw her classmate get hit by a car. He was thrown over the hood, broke his leg, and was taken away in an ambulance. Later on, the girl started to cry from shock, as she described the incident to her teacher. The teacher went to a member of the administration, and said that he was worried about her, that she seemed distraught. The response? “Oh, she’s just crazy. She just wants the attention; she’s crazy.”
This would be bad enough, but the teenager in question was known to regularly attend therapy. “Oh, she’s crazy” is just another example of the stigma that sufferers of mental illness face on a daily basis — if people are aware of their struggles, that is.
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A report on the effects of this prevalent stigma pointed out that people who encounter this stigma are more likely to suffer from “a relapse of symptoms,” and less likely to accept treatment. It goes on to say that the effects of the stigma aren’t always outwardly measurable. Some 69 percent of people internalize the stigma “in the form of lowered self-esteem,” which is no joke. Self-esteem is necessary for a happy life.
The stigma against the mentally ill is serious. It’s not just making people uncomfortable, it’s damaging them and impeding their recovery.
One of the ways you fight stigma is by finding the courage to tell your story. Over 47 million American adults suffer from mental illness and more than half of them don’t receive treatment. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that it can easily take people ten years to get treatment.
These are unacceptable numbers. So what to we do about it?
Researchers found that of all the strategies to combat the stigma, “contact, which challenges public attitudes about mental illness through direct interactions with persons who have these disorders,” is the most effective, even more effective than attempts to educate people about the nature of mental illness.
Encountering somebody with mental illness forces you to see them as a complicated, nuanced, intelligent person, who defies stereotyping. It forces you to see them as any other human being, whose neurochemistry and personal history presents unique challenges for them. They’re not “crazy,” they’re mentally ill. It’s a big difference.
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I suppose it’s not enough to talk the talk, so here’s what I haven’t been telling people: I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The disorder is the subject of a great deal of caricaturing … you know, “Oh, I’m so OCD, I hate it when my bed covers are wrinkled!” It’s actually not very funny. OCD gives me panic attacks, it gives me a brutal case of scrupulosity, it plays horrifying, intrusive images over and over again in my head, and imposes irrational rules on me.
The other day I made a little progress — I broke one of my rules. I ate my trail mix in the wrong order. I ate two cashews in a row, instead of taking turns with them. Hey, I’d be laughing myself at the pure stupidity of that problem, except that I know myself, and what I did was a big deal, and real progress. Still, it doesn’t mean I don’t feel stupid admitting it.
Mental illness feels humiliating, but it shouldn’t be, and it wouldn’t be if society didn’t categorize it differently than other, non-humiliating illnesses.
Pastor Rick Warren, whose son committed suicide after years of depression, put it well: “If I have diabetes, there is no stigma to that, but if my brain doesn’t work, why am I supposed to be ashamed of that? It’s just another organ. People will readily admit to taking medicine for high blood pressure, but if I am taking medication for some kind of mental problem I’m having, I’m supposed to hide that.”
There’s no change without action. So if you’re mentally ill, and you can muster the courage, consider not guarding your secret so carefully. It’s a huge step toward self-acceptance and it’ll make the world a safer, fairer place for others who suffer just the same as you.