You do not tell a cancer patient, “It’s like you’re not even trying.” Nor do you comfort a heart disease patient with, “You’ll feel better if you just change your frame of mind.” Both of these are unintentional medical conditions that are leading causes of death. These same statements shouldn’t be said to mental illness patients either. Just as a cancer patient can’t will himself to get better, neither can a mental illness patient.
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness, which one in every five American adults experience, as a health condition related to changes in emotions, behaviors, and thinking, or a combination of these three. Depression is the most common mental illness affecting more than 26 percent of American adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by the year 2020, depression will be the second-leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing ischemic heart disease.
Despite the generational strides in understanding and acceptance of mental illness, there is still a tremendous stigma. According to the CDC, only 25 percent of adults with mental illness symptoms believe that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.
“Many people feel embarrassed or ashamed of their symptoms because our society places illogical taboos on mental health issues over physical conditions,” said clinical psychologist Nikki Massey-Hastings, PsyD.
Across our society, mental illness is seen as a weakness in character, a spiritual weakness, and even a mythical disease.
Dr. Thomas Szasz, a well-known professor of psychiatry and author of “The Myth of Mental Illness,” believes that mental illness is a way of making people feel OK about their inappropriate behavior. He believes the existence of mental illness is a myth because “there is no objective test for mental illness, much less a test to measure the severity of this alleged illness.”
Perhaps Szasz and his followers are, in part, responsible for the stigma that is surrounding mental illness. Either way, science is contrary to these beliefs.
Numerous studies over the years show the brain is altered in patients with mental illness. The hippocampus, P13K enzyme, white and gray matter and brain weight are all aspects, among others, of the brain that are negatively affected. Studies also show that psychotropic medications such as antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and antidepressants reduce symptoms of mental illness in combination with psychotherapy.
Additionally, there is a strong positive correlation between poor mental health and chronic physical illness. They are fundamentally linked and are risk factors of one another. If a patient has poor physical health, they are more likely to experience poor mental health and vice versa. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and that there is no health without mental health.” Thus, if one is concerned about physical illness, addressing mental illness is essential.
Regardless of whether the scientific evidence proves or disproves that mental health and physical health are comparable in severity, or if mental illness is indeed a true illness, there is still a real and severe problem. Every year, 41,149 deaths in America are associated with suicide, elevating it to the top-10 leading causes of death. Suicide is caused by untreated mental illness.
Just as cancer patients don’t welcome sickness, neither do those with a mental illness. They do not choose their condition. We need to reduce the stigma that is attached to mental illness. People need to feel safe and confident in seeking help.
Reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD will only come through education. We must be informed of signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with mental illness. A possible way to do this is implementing routine mental health screenings in school systems and primary care physician offices/clinics. These routine screenings will allow school officials and medical providers to assess risk factors and utilize early intervention measures. Another way is to place educational brochures that provide facts and resource information for mental illness in schools, community centers, resource centers and other public vicinities. These are just two of many possible educational strategies.
Together, as communities, with the proper awareness and education, we can create healthy and whole individuals, physically and mentally. It starts with acknowledging that mental illness is real, no matter how you look at it, and that when treated timely and correctly it can lead to a healthier and more fulfilling life. Just like cancer.