The Stigma Attached to Mental Illness
By Elise Marnt
According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in every five Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental illness during his or her lifetime.
In the past two decades, scientists have made significant medical and technological advances that have aided doctors in uncovering previously unknown details of the brain. Through these discoveries, medical professionals have developed effective treatments for several mental disorders. Despite these advances, however, a societal stigma still exists that prevents many of those affected from seeking proper care and treatment.
A mental illness, as defined by the National Mental Health Association, is a disorder that causes disturbances in thinking, perception, and behavior. Mental illness is not unique to a specific group. It can affect people of any age, race, or social status. It shows no discrimination when choosing its victims. And although millions of Americans’ lives are affected by a mental disorder, there is a lack of understanding, treatment options, resources, and support.
In most cases a mental illness can be treated with proper care and medical attention. Many people, however, fail to seek the help they need because of the shame that we have attached to mental illnesses.
Between 81 and 85 Americans commit suicide every day. According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of these deaths are the result of untreated depression. Suicide, the third-leading cause of death among 15- to- 24-year-olds, is more common in adolescents and young adults than in older adults. Depression affects an estimated 19 million adults and six million adolescents every year. Sufferers of this illness endure intense feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, and hopelessness.
Research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that half of mental illnesses begin by adolescence.
“We have learned that depression starts early, much earlier than we thought,” Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH, said. “Mental disorders are the chronic diseases of the young.”
Depression, as well as the majority of mental illnesses, seldom goes away if left untreated by a mental health professional. In fact, the longer mental illnesses remain untreated, the worse they tend to become. Patients who suffer from bipolar disorder oftentimes experience more frequent and more extreme mood swings as their illness progresses.
Stemming from irregularities in brain biochemistry, bipolar disorder is an illness that causes severe alternations in a person’s mood. Every year bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, affects 2.5 million adults in the United States. Statistics from the NIMH show that 90 percent of patients who suffer from bipolar disorder display symptoms of the illness before age 20.
On November 18, 2005, the House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s suggested budget for next year. The Senate’s plan would have granted the National Institutes of Health with $1.46 billion for clinical research. Although this bill was rejected, a compromise was reached between the House and the Senate. Attempts to pass a new spending legislation began on December 6. If this budget is accepted, the NIMH will be provided with $48.2 million for mental illness research.
The Campaign for Mental Health Reform’s preliminary analysis of President Bush’s fiscal year budget for 2006 reveals that, although $11.5 million would be provided to the Garett Lee Smith Memorial Act, a legislation adopted by Congress in 2004 to lower the number of adolescent suicides through awareness campaigns, $64 million would be cut from the Center for Mental Health Services’ budget. Such a large slash in the CMHS’s budget would threaten the availability of community-based mental health services. This proposed FY budget would also jeopardize the aid that is currently available to homeless individuals suffering from a mental illness. Many of these people have schizophrenia, a debilitating condition that prevents its victims from functioning in society.
Schizophrenia affects 3.2 million Americans, causing them experience chronic hallucinations and delusions. These severely distorted thoughts stop most sufferers from leading a normal life. Because of their inability to function in society without medicinal and behavioral therapy, schizophrenics will only be further alienated if the funding for their services is cut. There is still no cure for schizophrenia; however, it is an illness that can be controlled with the proper medical treatment.
Bush’s budget plan will take money away from other services available to the mentally ill. In addition to cutting the funding provided to special education services, Medicaid programs, and veterans’ resources, this plan proposes a decrease in money available to organizations that aim to help mentally and emotionally distressed youth. These correctional programs are geared toward preparing juvenile delinquents to be successfully mainstreamed into society.
The NAMI claims that mental disorders are the leading cause of disability. Accepting the reality of mental illness is difficult, and witnessing the damage one can cause is painful.
But the thought of allowing these victims to suffer alone is haunting. A mental illness is not a choice, a weakness, or a phase. We need to replace our judgement with acceptance, our ridicule with compassion.
© Elise Marnt