Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness
by Katie Luce, LMFT
Site Director of Jordan Middle School and Redwood Continuation High School
Stigma regarding mental illness is an issue that needs to be addressed, even in our educated and progressive community. We must be careful about the words we use, especially in front of our children, and work to educate others in our community about mental illness. Stigma exists due to fear and misinformation and creates isolation and discrimination. Silence perpetuates the stigma, so starting a dialogue is an important part of educating those who have not experienced mental illness.
One of the best ways one can help someone with mental illness is by understanding what it is and what it isn’t. After all, myths about mental illness contribute to stigma, which in turn prevents those who are living with mental illness from seeking help.
Scientists believe that mental illness is a disorder of the brain and has many causes from genetics to other biological, environmental and social/cultural factors. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org) 1 in 4 adults – approximately 61.5 million Americans – experiences mental illness in a given year. It is estimated that one in 17 − about 13.6 million − live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Approximately 20% of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders. For ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13%.
Fortunately, mental illness is treatable through medication and psychotherapy, and there is abundant evidence that those who engage in treatment can lead full and productive lives. Unfortunately, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov), more than 50% of adults and 70% of children and adolescents are not receiving any treatment for their mental illness.
If one thinks there are signs of mental illness, the first person one should see is the family doctor. A physician can determine whether the symptoms of concern are due to mental illness, some other medical condition, or both. If a mental disorder is diagnosed, the next step is to see a mental health professional. It’s important to choose a mental health professional with whom one feels comfortable, because working as a team and creating a plan together to treat the mental disorder is imperative. Creative outlets such as music, art, and journaling are positive coping strategies that are often suggested as part of treatment. Exercise and stress management techniques such as meditation, can also be helpful. Family support is a very important part in the treatment and recovery of a person with a mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides a monthly newsletter which is an excellent resource for finding local support groups that can educate and give comfort and knowledge to family members.
Popular figures speaking in the media about their experiences with mental illness have been an enormous help in erasing stigma. One example of a well-known figure who chose to discuss mental illness publicly is actress Glenn Close. She co-founded Bringchange2mind.org, a national anti-stigma campaign aimed at removing misconceptions and discrimination about mental illness. The idea was born out of a partnership between Glenn Close and Fountain House, where Glenn volunteered to learn more about mental illness because her sister, Jessie Close, has bipolar disorder and her nephew, Calen Pick, has schizophrenia. Bringchange2mind.org offers many stories of hope written by individuals affected with mental illness, and provides many ideas about how to become involved in the cause. Another popular figure who courageously has spoken about her own mental health issues is Demi Lovato, former teen star and X- Factor judge. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010 and has embraced the chance to speak out about her self-harming behavior, eating disorder and depression. She is contributing her efforts to an anti-bullying campaign for girls called “Mean Stinks” (www.meanstinks.com). Demi was recently quoted in the Winter 2014 BP Magazine, a publication serving those with bipolar disorder (www.bphope.com) saying, “I want to be the person for other girls that I needed to admire when I was looking for help and strength.”
The same issue of BP Magazine featured Shelby Tewten, a former American Idol contestant. Her story helps illustrate how effective coping strategies can help in the treatment of mental illness. “Singing is my greatest coping mechanism,” says Shelby, who opened up about having bipolar as a contestant on American Idol’s 11th season. “Writing music calms me.” Shelby, now 19, was still in elementary school when she discovered music’s ability to soothe her emotions and quiet her mind. After attending a Christian convention in ninth grade, she found that singing was also a way to reach out to others. Shelby remembers an arena filled with 3,000 teenagers, all joined in song, all moved by the music and the moment. That’s when her musical aspirations crystallized.
Shelby says she never thought twice about going public with her diagnosis on national television. Her mother, Karrey Tweten, admits to having some concerns. “I didn’t want her announcement to overshadow her talent,” Karrey says. “But Shelby told me that [having] bipolar is who she is. She’s not ashamed of her condition, and she thought being candid might help others.” “Idol not only showed me how strong I was, it also allowed me to reach thousands of people of all different ages with my story,” Shelby says. “I’ve received many letters from people who say they appreciate everything I’m doing to erase the stigma associated with bipolar.”
Tips for Talking about Mental Illness from Bringchange2mind.org
Words are very powerful, so choose your words wisely: Learn about the impact your words can have on those with mental illness. While there may be times when it is too challenging or simply not possible to politely correct someone else’s insensitive use of language, you can always watch your own.
When we say someone is “crazy” or “that’s totally mental” we’re perpetuating stereotypes.
Eliminate the phrase “suffers from mental illness”. Instead, choose, “lives with mental illness” or “is affected by mental illness”.
When we say a person is “schizophrenic,” we make their mental illness fully define their complete identity. Instead, be clear that this is a disease that individuals manage and live with, e.g. “he is living with schizophrenia”.
There are many phrases and terms; “crazy,” “nuts”, “psycho”, “schiz”, “retard” and “lunatic” that may seem insignificant, but really aren’t.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov)
BP Magazine (www.bphope.com)
When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens, Bev Cobain, R.N. (2007)
Behind Happy Faces: Taking Charge of Your Mental Health, A Guide for Young Adults, by Ross Szabo and Melanie Hall (2010)