Mental illness. What do you think of when you hear those words? Someone who can’t function, someone who wanders around aimlessly or maybe someone who is dangerous?
Chances are you know someone who lives with mental illness but doesn’t fit any of those descriptions.
About 1 in 4 adults and about 1 in 5 children deal with mental illness sometime during their lives. Mental illness does not discriminate. Anyone and everyone can be affected.
According to StopStigmaSacramento.org, “A mental illness causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking, perception, mood and/or behavior. These disturbances can affect a person’s ability to cope with life’s demands and routines. However, with education, support and treatment, people can — and do — recover and live fulfilling lives.”
Some common mental illnesses include adjustment disorders, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Did you know Abraham Lincoln, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Jane Pauley, Michael Phelps and Herschel Walker all live or lived with mental illnesses?
Mental illness can be treated, but the negative thoughts and stigmas we attach to mental illness make it difficult for those coping with the illness to seek help. If people feel ashamed of their illness or feel like someone will look down on them if they admit their problem, then they are less likely to seek help. Waiting to seek help can prolong mental illness and make recovery more difficult.
For example, if someone tells you they have diabetes, you don’t avoid them or expect them to fix their condition on their own. You might ask them how diabetes affects their lives and what they do to cope with it.
But if someone tells you they have depression or another mental illness, you probably feel uncomfortable and unsure of what to say. Part of this discomfort comes from a lack of understanding. Diabetes is accepted and discussed openly. Mental illness is not. This needs to change.
Many misconceptions surround mental illness. One common misconception is that the people with mental illness have some character flaw. Mental illness is not caused by character flaws. The website mentalhealth.gov states that some factors that contribute to mental illness include “biological factors, such as genes, physical illness, injury or brain chemistry, and life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse.”
Another common misconception is people living with mental illness can fix it by themselves if they just try hard enough. Many times we tell someone with depression to think positive thoughts and expect the person
to just stop being down. It’s not that easy.
Would you tell someone with diabetes to just regulate their insulin by themselves? No. Diabetics get help from doctors and don’t feel ashamed to get that help. Those with mental illnesses need help from mental health professionals, and they shouldn’t feel they are somehow defective because they need help.
Other misconceptions include thinking medication will fix everything or the opposite: that only therapy is needed. Both may be needed to manage mental illness.
Think of how high blood pressure is treated.
Generally diet and lifestyle changes are tried first. Then if that is not enough, medication is introduced.
The same holds true for mental illness. Therapy and behavior changes are tried first and then medication may be added.
Medication for mental illness also gets a bad rap but can be very helpful. As with any medication, possible side effects should be considered, and monitoring of the effects and effectiveness of the medicine should occur.
However, medication can help adjust brain chemicals to proper levels, just as other medications regulate the levels of other chemicals in our bodies. There should be no shame in taking medication for mental illness if it is needed.
So what can you do to help someone with mental illness? It is easy to feel helpless or unsure of how to help when someone you care about has a mental illness.
You can start by letting them know you care and want to help. Encourage them to seek treatment and help them find professionals who can help them. Find out the truth about mental illness and speak up to correct misconceptions.
You should also treat those with mental illness with respect just as you would anyone else.
Locally, Family Service is hosting a run/walk in November to bring awareness of the need to stop the stigma of mental illness in our community. Follow Family Service on Facebook or its website at familyservicebc.org for more details.
Whatever you do, educate yourself about mental illness and accept those who live with mental illness.
Susan Cox is a mother, an adjunct instructor of English at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus and a substitute teacher for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.