Reducing the Stigma: Mental Illness

Reducing the Stigma: Mental Illness

Rachel Rowitt Ed.D., LMHC, CAP | Grace Counseling, Inc

One of the main reasons that mental illness carries such a negative stigma is that typically our society refers to it as something severe, debilitating and causing a person to be non-functional. When we think about mental illness we assume ‘crazy’ due to our lack of education and awareness. For those who are not in the psychological or medical world, some clarification may be helpful to understand that mental Illness is more common than you think.

Mental Health America reports that 1 in 5 Adults have a mental health condition. That’s over 40 million Americans; more than the populations of New York and Florida combined.

It is important for us to recognize that the term mental illness does not mean that one cannot get better. The very indication of the word illness means that change can occur through treatment, medications and/or behavior modifications. Depending on the severity of the mental illness outcomes for recovery will be different.

Who gets mental illness? There is a difference between mental illness and occasional mood swings, depressed mood, anger outbursts and so on. Mental health is like a swinging pendulum, each of the kinetic balls are representations of our feeling and thought options: sadness, happiness, anger, disorganization, grief, abandonment, rejection, etc. it’s when the motion stops and gets stuck on one characteristic that we then see mental illness being an explanation.

Let’s examine how a person who does not suffer from mental illness experiences a death of a family dog. They may respond with grief and loss feelings for a period of time. They may have bouts of crying and depressed mood. However, the physical and psychological response lessons over time even though the pain of loss remains permanent. In this example, there is an active event that triggers a response which gets better over time. Because mental illness is classified as a disorder, it will last longer that a usual timeline response to an activating event and sometimes there is no activating event. Mental illness can be influenced both by nature (genetics) and nurture (environment).

The National Association of Mental Illness defines it as “a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.”

Understanding Barriers to Treatment Shame is a feeling that is common for those diagnosed with mental illness or even someone who is struggling with emotional distress triggered by an event. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines shame as a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety. By this definition, the person with mental illness is carrying around responsibility for something he or she cannot control and, therefore, could not be faulted for the development of such. It is the judgment from others, whether spoken or unspoken, that creates the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Because of the stigma, someone may be less likely to get help at the initial development of the mental illness when things are more manageable and less damaging. It is the ongoing neglect of treatment that results in some of the deterioration of quality of life which reinforces the ignorance surrounding mental illness. Shame needs to be eliminated through education and awareness so that early interventions can be applied. This is not a guarantee for all persons with mental illness to recover. However, this is a good start.

Changing Our Perspective Community awareness is important in ending the stigma of mental illness. We collectively need to be less judgmental of others and ourselves regarding our emotional health. First, we must believe the mental illness is not something that someone does to themselves. Secondly, we must recognize that the majority of individuals with mental illness do not want to have it. Lastly, we should become more aware of the signs and symptoms within ourselves that need to be addressed before pointing the finger at others. Most of the time those traits we see in others are the very ones we struggle with. Let’s not shame each other but embrace our differences with an open mind.

If you are or have a loved one that is suffering from mental illness finding the right support is essential to management and overall satisfaction of life. Working with a therapist who is well versed in techniques to challenge behaviors and unwanted thoughts is extremely important for behavior modification. In addition, if you are on medications for your mental health it is of utmost importance that you also attend counseling sessions for optimal results.

For more info please contact Grace Counseling at 954-263-9657 or see