The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

Table of Contents

At No Matter What Recovery, mental health is a daily focus in our program. For this reason, and because it is important, we have decided to address some common stigmas regarding mental health.

While one could argue society has come a long way to address the issue over the years, we have a long way to go. The common understanding of mental illness is too often still lacking.

A Few Common Refrains

Depending on your experience or knowledge, you may have heard some things about mental illness. You may have been taught it was a weakness or a sign of an inability to solve one’s own problems.

The reality, as most with mental illness know, is that these ideas are absurd. Asking someone to “get over” their addiction or depression is as silly as asking them “get over” a cut or broken leg. This is a basic medical fact.

A great deal on the topic of mental health is complicated. There are over 200 conditions to learn about, each with its own nuance. Luckily, the initial steps to understanding are easy:

In short, the first step toward understanding is empathy. The stories we hear about mental illness are often wrong, exaggerated, or incomplete. Always approach others with respect and an understanding that you do not fully know their story.

Why is Mental Illness Stigmatized?

One might wonder why mental illness is stigmatized. It’s a complex question and a deep answer might require more nuance than one article can fit. However, we can at least address the issue in broad strokes.

Ignorance is at the core of stigmatization understanding mental illness is not intuitive. If you have not experienced it yourself, it can be hard to grasp at first.

What we see when we look at someone who is mentally ill can seem strange. We might see someone who acts in a way that is different; they may break certain social norms.

In the past, and even in some regions today, these issues were blamed on demons or magic. Others may blame deviance. These beliefs could and continue to do real harm to vulnerable people.

The way to combat stigmatization is through education. We can teach both others and ourselves about mental illness. We can become more aware of mental health and the issues that pose a threat to our own mental health.

The more society accepts and acknowledges the realities of mental health, the better our society becomes. Some people, through trauma, birth, or other circumstances, need real help and attention for issues we can’t always see.

There is no shame in needing help; the only shame is letting down those who need it.

Depression

We want to highlight a few of the mental health issues that many people struggle with. The goal is to not only help fight any stigma around these conditions but also combat general misinformation.

Because it is so common and misunderstood, we’ve decided to begin with depression. Depression is a common but serious mood disorder, characterized by a number of symptoms, including:

While most people feel down on occasion, depression is chronic. These symptoms have to last more than two weeks for a diagnosis to be possible. (At the same time, severe symptoms may warrant seeking help sooner.)

Depression can manifest in many ways, more than we can talk about today. Many people won’t experience all the above symptoms, and some symptoms will be more severe than others.

What’s important to remember is someone can’t “snap out” of depression. The cause needs to be addressed. Oftentimes, the help of a mental health professional will be needed.

Some people who are depressed will need medication to feel normal and live full lives. Others may not, or may only need medication sometimes. It all depends on what their doctor thinks is best.

Schizophrenia

For a long time, schizophrenia was a major target for stigmatization in the media.

When writers of a crime show needed a villain, schizophrenia was a common choice to justify their criminal behavior. Meanwhile, comedies would use schizophrenia (either by name or implication) to justify silly or odd behavior.

This has somewhat changed, but much of the stigma remains. For this reason, it’s time to address some common myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia. The vast majority of those diagnosed with schizophrenia are non-violent, according to one study:

Within five years of diagnosis, women with schizophrenia are convicted of violent crime at a rate of 2.7%
women 2.7%
Within five years of diagnosis, men with schizophrenia are convicted of violent crime at a rate of 10.7%
10.7%

The major risk factors for violence seem to be past violent behavior, substance abuse, and past attempts at self-harm

However, even the above is somewhat misleading. As Dr. Fuller Torrey noted in the above article, the real issue is failing to treat those most at risk.

As will come up again and again in this article, it’s society letting down those suffering from mental illness that causes the biggest issues. If someone with schizophrenia gets the help they need, their chance of violence drops.

Rejecting, fearing, or laughing at those with schizophrenia does real harm. Most pose no threat and even those who do need help, not derision. With the right tools, these people can live happy, safe lives.

The tragedy is that as many as 13% of those with schizophrenia are estimated to die by suicide. That’s in addition to those who attempt suicide or who consider it but do not act on those thoughts.

Some people with schizophrenia fear their medication will have harsh symptoms. While side effects can still occur, modern schizophrenia medication tends to carry much less severe side effects than medication from a few decades ago.

Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders, which include but are not limited to dissociative identity disorder, are often deeply misunderstood.

This misunderstanding is due to a combination of poor media representation and the fact these disorders can be difficult to understand. Dissociative episodes are not always flashy or even obvious in the moment.

What one should keep in mind when reading about these conditions is that patients aren’t faking, at least with a genuine diagnosis. Reality and fiction blend and whole minutes, hours, or days can even be lost to them.

To help dispel both the stigma around these disorders and the general misunderstanding of them, let’s get into the three types of dissociative disorders defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia is characterized by a person having difficulty remembering key details or events. It is often triggered by severe trauma, a common element of dissociative disorders.

The most common form this condition takes is the inability to recall details about abuse or combat. However, it can also manifest as difficulty recalling other things, such as key life details.

The loss of memory is often sudden. It can last an indeterminate amount of time, although loss for more than a few days is rare. That said, there have been cases of months- or years-long episodes.

Depersonalization Disorder

More common in those under 20, depersonalization disorder is characterized by a detachment from events. 

These symptoms often last in short episodes, with many people experiencing them only for moments. That said, some people, such as those who undergo regular abuse, can experience multiple episodes over the course of years.

Important to note is that those with depersonalization disorder aren’t “pretending” events happened to someone else (or nobody at all). It is a genuine, strange feeling of disconnect from the events in question.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is complex and misunderstood enough that it warrants its own article. That said, we will try to summarize here.

Once called multiple personality disorder (or split personality disorder), DID is characterized by a person having multiple identities they slip between. They may also feel these personalities argue for control inside their own head.

These personalities can have unique names, personalities, and more. Often the memories of one personality are blurry or non-existent to the other (or others). The exact way they manifest is highly influenced by a person’s cultural upbringing.

Much of the modern misunderstanding of DID comes from the real-life story of Sybil (which was a pseudonym used to protect the patient’s identity).

In short, this was the supposed story of an abused woman who developed many personalities as a result of severe trauma. Her story exploded in the media, gaining films and other major media attention.

Unfortunately, while the patient was troubled, it seems the majority of her story is fiction. At the very least, her psychiatrist’s behavior was so inappropriate and lacking in rigor as to render the story deeply unreliable.

That said, the damage was done. Much of the public’s understanding stems from a sensationalized, likely fictional account of the disorder

Addiction

Addiction is one of the most common mental illnesses that we still see stigmatized each and every day. Alcohol addiction is a common punchline in comedy, despite being a very serious issue (meth addiction maybe even more so).

We’ll start by addressing some basic facts. Addiction is a mental illness. It is not a sign of moral weakness or a lack of willpower.

Addiction rewires the brain. While the exact mechanics depend on the drug in question, someone suffering from addiction experiences the world in a different way. In a literal way, joy becomes harder to find.

On top of that, addiction affects the body in other ways, too. As an addictive substance wears off, withdrawal can occur.

While specifics vary, withdrawal can be painful. In some cases, it can even be deadly if the patient doesn’t get help weaning off certain drugs (such as alcohol and benzodiazepines).

Imagine being in immense discomfort as you crave something your body tells you that you need. That thing can bring relief and even real comfort. This is the battle addiction represents.

Fighting Addiction

Whether you’re dealing with addiction or someone else is, help is out there. We should know; we’re one of the rehab specialists that offer it.

The issue is that the way society stigmatized addiction can make getting that help more difficult. If we frame addiction as a moral weakness or lazy indulgence, a person may only feel worse and more powerless to fight their addiction.

Nobody chooses to get addicted to something. By definition, being addicted means a compulsion to engage in an activity despite its possible harm. Ceasing cold turkey may be difficult or even impossible, depending on the circumstances.

Admitting We Need Help

Another important element of fighting addiction (and all mental illness) is a willingness to ask for help. Too many people view asking for help as a sign of weakness. They feel like they’re supposed to solve their issues all on their own.

In part, this comes from a mental health stigma around accepting help. Many people (often men) think there is some “honor” in solving an issue all on their own. This attitude has faded a bit in the past decades but is still quite common.

Put simply, modern addiction experts can help fight addiction better than any one individual can. If you have the ability to visit a rehab center to fight your addiction, you should go.

The most effective, safe way to fight addiction is with help. Rehab centers like ours are full of experts who are trained to give someone what they need to fight addiction.

There’s no benefit to rejecting that help. It only decreases your chances of beating addiction. Rehab doesn’t just help you when you’re at the facility; you also get taught how to fight urges when you’re on your own, too.

Getting Help to Vulnerable Groups

One of the tragedies of mental health stigmatization is that it doesn’t act alone. If a person has trouble with their mental health and is part of another vulnerable group, getting help can be even harder.

For example, the LGBTQ+ community is at greater risk of mental health issues. While many try to argue this is for reasons of sin or deviance, the reality is much simpler. They often have harder lives and more trouble getting their needs addressed.

It was only in 2015 gay marriage was legalized everywhere. South Carolina, Wyoming, and Arkansas lack basic hate-crime laws. Transgender people everywhere still struggle to get basic confirmation surgery or even basic medical care.

These aren’t the only vulnerable groups, either. If people feel unsafe or like mental health care will be inadequate, they are less likely to seek help.

At No Matter What Recovery, we have tried to make sure the needs of all patients are met. Our addiction treatment programs are LGBTQ+ friendly, designed to step up where medicine too often lets people down.

A Mental Illness Doesn't Always Act Alone

Somewhat related to the above, it’s worth mentioning when discussing mental health awareness that mental illness is complex. Many people who struggle with mental health must deal with multiple conditions at once.

If someone tells you they have multiple mental illnesses, the odds are good they aren’t token stacking. For example, depression is common across the board for those with mental illness.

This makes sense on multiple levels. For one, if someone’s brain chemistry is pre-disposed to one kind of condition, it might also be predisposed to others.

In addition to that, mental illness can complicate someone’s life. If day-to-day tasks are harder or they face harsh stigma, that’s going to affect them.

What’s unfortunate about people who have to deal with multiple mental health issues at once is treatment gets more complicated. That’s why at No Matter What Recovery, we try to tailor an addiction treatment program to meet all a patient’s mental health needs.

Never Stand Still

It’s important to keep the dialog of mental health going. Don’t assume you know enough. Don’t assume our society doesn’t have room to grow.

There are many ways to become more aware of mental health issues. On our site, we often blog about addiction and related issues. Then there’s a host of medical websites where you can read how various mental illnesses really work.

One of the best ways to learn about mental health is to listen to the communities dealing with those issues.

While not everyone who has dealt with a mental illness wants to talk about it, some do.  If you can find a way to talk with them or watch/read content produced by them, it can help you grow your own understanding.

On the flip side, researching mental illness requires care. Many people, either out of malice or ignorance, produce inaccurate information on mental health.

For this reason, remember to verify your sources. Doctors and accredited researchers can be good for scientific facts. Random bloggers can also be good but need to be viewed with a more careful eye.

Mental Health Advocacy Groups

If you’re interested in helping in growing mental health awareness on a wider scale, there are many ways to do so. One of the easiest is through mental health advocacy groups.

For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) works to help the public better understand mental illness. They also work to help those struggling with mental illness live healthy, fulfilling lives.

There are other organizations that focus on awareness and support for those with specific conditions. If there’s an issue close to your heart, you can find a group that helps people dealing with it.

The only caveat we will add is to research an organization before donating or helping. Tools like Charity Navigator can help you look at how an organization really operates, cutting through their sales pitch.

By working together and pooling resources, voices can be made louder. By helping to empower the right people, you can do your part in educating the public.

The more aware people are of mental health issues, the better they can help. Whole communities can develop to help those who cannot help themselves. Laws can be made or changed to protect people society too often ignores.

Dropping the Stigma of Mental Health

While No Matter What Recovery’s focus is on addiction, mental health issues of all kinds matter. It’s important to remember that these issues will remain. Keep learning more and keep fighting for those who need help.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, consider contacting us. Our services are confidential, thorough, and cutting-edge. Nobody should have to fight addiction alone.

Sources

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