By Lisa Cypers Kamen –
While we live in a high-tech world where NASA discovers new exo-planets for possible future colonization and people receive spectacular new surgeries, the truth is we still live with a stigma surrounding mental illness. The source of the stigma around mental illness is related to the centuries of misunderstandings, and lack of basic knowledge about mental illness. The psychiatric profession began to develop in the late 19th century with men such as Freud and Jung, but it hasn’t been until the mid-late 20th century and early 21st century that we are gaining true insight into understanding the ways in which people are affected by mental illness. For centuries, people were shoved into asylums and anyone with a mental illness was generally thought to be either feeble or dangerous.
Even today, people with mental illness are often portrayed as dangerous, evil, criminal, and generally unstable. This makes for dramatic television and film plots, but it’s not accurate to suggest that all people who commit crimes struggle with mental illness. In addition to plots for weekly series, the media often sensationalizes those who commit crimes and focus on their mental illness when one exists. These portrayals often lead to continued misperceptions and misunderstandings.
The fact is, the stigma around mental illness continues to have a profound effect on peoples’ lives. People who cope with mental illness often find themselves denied housing, turned down for employment, and social circles reticent to include them as equal members. Many people with mental illness often live on the periphery of society and not as fully valued members. On the other hand, an increasing number of people have decided to be very public about their struggles with mental illness. Some of the more famous individuals who have been open about this struggle include:
This is a very small list of the famous people who have coped with mental illness. For some of them, such as the late President Lincoln, any public discussion of his depression would have led to the end of his political career. But, is the same true today? How would the Canadian or United States public react if a man or woman running for the leadership of a major political party revealed they coped with depression, or bipolar disorder, or severe anxiety to the point they required medication? The likelihood is they would be immediately discounted. Far too many people would worry whether they could cope in a crisis. Yet, President Lincoln already proved that a high-profile leader could cope with their mental illness and still be a courageous, insightful, and strong national leader.
Mental illness, continues to be one of those issues which society struggles with in many ways because of the “historical social construct of mental illness”. Society has not yet fully accepted that mental illness is like any other illness which can be treated and enable the person to fully cope with life’s challenges.
There are two forms of stigma that we must contend with – external stigma and self-stigma. The latter is when individuals with mental illness feel a sense of shame or embarrassment concerning their illness. As a result, many choose to try and conceal their condition, and even refuse treatment which causes more difficulties for them in the long run. Stigma can not only make life difficult, it can destroy someone’s life.
Some of the ways stigma impacts on a person with a mental health issue can be:
The truth is we must “de-stigmatize” mental illness. Society must work towards the goal of de-stigmatization so that people who cope with mental illness are viewed as absolutely no different than someone coping with any other health concern. The roots of stigma run deep in many societies, and are driven by fear and ignorance. Even with all the information that is widely available (especially via the Internet), people still don’t know as much about mental illness as they could or should. People/families/couples need to share their stories. There is no shame in coping with mental illness, and the more we talk about it openly, the stigma begins to lose its power over us.
The U.S. Census estimates that 26% of Americans cope with a mental illness. These are high numbers and indicate the need for an increase in support, services and awareness. If you, or someone you know copes with a mental illness, don’t hesitate to call a helpline or your local Mental Health Association for support.
In the case of managing my own past clinical depression, receiving timely support, intervention, and treatment were essential in the process of healing and reclaiming my life.
Lisa Cypers Kamen, MA, is an internationally recognized applied positive psychology coach, author, speaker, documentary filmmaker, and host of the popular radio show Harvesting Happiness, where she has helped millions of people around the world generate more joy and fulfilment in their life. Her new book, Are We Happy Yet? Eight Keys to Unlocking a Joyful Life releases on March 20, 2017.