Dr. Adriana Faur
A century ago, people suffering from mental health conditions were thought to be witches, possessed by evil spirits, or just “crazy.” And they were treated by dangerous procedures, robbed of freedoms, and any sense of dignity. How have we changed? We have learned a great deal about mental illness, but the stigma remains.
We contribute to it every time we hear people use the word “crazy” to mean something bad, we see TV shows depicting people with mental illness in funny or embarrassing ways, and falsely believe that people with mental illness are violent/aggressive. In fact, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime. And they are no more likely to engage in violent behavior than people with no mental illness.
But still, the stigma remains, despite advances in scientific research which clearly show that people suffer from mental illnesses in similar ways as from physical illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, or arthritis. Some people with mental illness may be experiencing a chemical imbalance, which in turn may cause depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other disorders. On the other hand, mental illnesses (i.e. depression, anxiety, personality disorders, PTSD) may be caused by environmental factors (i.e. trauma, learned patterns of thinking, and life stressors). For instance, we know that people can learn depressive and anxious ways of thinking and behaving. And for many, mental illness results from a combination of having a genetic predisposition toward mental illness coupled with environmental factors (i.e. divorce, trauma, etc).
Regardless of the unique reasons for each individual suffering from mental illness, this is never a choice. So why judge people experiencing these conditions? I have seen untreated mental illness in people I am closest to steal their sense of joy, meaning, and purpose. It’s what has inspired me to embark on this lifelong journey to understand and treat mental illness. If people did not get this message from society or themselves that mental illness is shameful, they would reach out for help. Perhaps they would lead happier, more productive, and more meaningful lives. What if having cancer or diabetes were equally stigmatizing and people did not reach out for help for these debilitating conditions? We can't even fathom that. In general we tend to greatly empathize with people who experience cancer or diabetes. There is an implicit belief that experiencing a physical condition is less of a choice than experiencing a psychological one. This belief is that people with mental illness can "snap out of it" or "just be happy" without any intervention. Or that if people had enough willpower, they could combat mental illness on their own. These beliefs are harmful and oppressive- and false. And keeping the stigma alive.
So who are the "mentally ill"? And even better stated, without the use of labels...who are the people who have mental illness? People who have mental illness truly are…us all. There is no us vs. them. Most of us will experience some type of mental illness in our lifetime. Depression and anxiety are known as the “common cold of mental illness” by mental health providers, because they are likely to affect most of us at some point in our lives. That’s the bad news. The good news? There are psychological treatments- time limited, research based techniques- that successfully treat mental illness. So although people can learn to become depressed or anxious, there are techniques to help people unlearn these states. Even when the depression/anxiety is biological in nature, these same techniques can reshape the way we think and behave, and ultimately, the way our brains function. Our sense of joy, meaning and purpose can be restored, no matter our life circumstances.
Unfortunately, people will never get the opportunity to ease their suffering as long as they believe this suffering is a reason to feel shame or is a sign of weakness. This is why awareness and de-stigmatization are so important. There is no shame in being ill. And seeking help is not a sign of weakness- but ultimately a sign of strength. Although making that first step is hard, we all must choose to break down the walls that are holding us captive. And by doing this, we are choosing hope!