If you had the flu and could barely get out of bed, what would you do? Would you go see a doctor? Probably. If you were feeling depressed and could barely get out of bed, what would you do? Would you see a doctor? Maybe.
There are many reasons why individuals who suffer from mental illness do not seek the help they so need. One of the most influential reasons is lack of knowledge that results in a misunderstanding of what mental illness is, as well as a consequential stigma that can paralyze those suffering due to shame and fear of being included in the stigmatized group. Indeed, of the 44 million Americans suffer from mental illness, studies show that only 1/3 of those individuals will seek treatment. Imagine if only one-third of flu victims sought treatment! As a result of this gap, mental illness continues to be the leading cause of disability in the U.S.
So what exactly is contributing to the lack of knowledge and stigma, and what can be done?
To start, mental health education is almost non-existent. Nearly half of Americans report knowing little to nothing about mental illness. If schools can teach kids how to prevent cardiovascular disease, why can’t they teach about how to prevent depression? Fortunately, some schools are starting to view mental health education as an important investment in preventing mental illness and enhancing students’ overall well-being. For example, California passed a law in 2013 that requires the addition of mental health education to school curriculums. However, building awareness is just one piece of the puzzle.
Another related, and arguably larger, piece of the puzzle is overcoming the myths and stigma associated with mental illness. As stated earlier, lack of education has resulted in a misunderstanding of what mental illness is and how it should be treated. About one-third of Americans said they would not seek treatment for a psychiatric disorder due to fears of what others may think. Therefore, debunking myths and reducing stigma is critical to improving access to necessary care.
One common myth is that mental illness is only relevant to some people. However, mental illness actually occurs on a continuum. Let’s think about eating disorders, as an example. As a young woman, who hasn’t had thoughts like “I look fat” or “I need to be skinnier”? Maybe you’ve thought about restricting your calories or over-exercising to achieve that goal. Maybe you’ve actually done some of those things. Despite what many people think, mental illness affects everyone to some degree. Another common myth is that mental illness is synonymous with a person’s identity. Think about it. Would you ever say that someone with cancer is cancerous? No. Would you ever say that someone with schizophrenia is a schizophrenic? Many people do. However, this creates the perception that someone’s mental illness is who they are, and that recovery is therefore unlikely. As a result, individuals who suffer from mental illness are reluctant to get help because they feel as though there is no point as it is just who they are. The last common myth is that mental illness is a choice. Have you ever heard someone say that if you’re feeling anxious, you should just stop being anxious? In other words, you’re choosing to be nervous all the time and the cure to that experience is sheer willpower. If only it were that simple! Mental illness is the result of a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Though most mental illness can be effectively treated, it is by no means a choice and the sufferer is by no means to blame for it. Mental illness is, rather, exactly what it says it is—an illness.
In addition to general lack of education and stigma, another large factor in mental health care is culture. Culture plays a huge role in the way in which mental illness and the associated stigmas are discussed and treated. Within the U.S., African-Americans, Latinos, and Indian-Americans tend to view mental illness as personal weaknesses or controllable conditions. Similarly, individuals of Asian descent tend to be shamed for admitting to having a mental illness. Consequently, when asked about mental illness, individuals of these ethnic backgrounds often deny the presence of mental illness and/or talk solely about the associated physical symptoms, rather than the emotional symptoms. For example, an individual with an Indian background might describe depressive symptoms as being characterized by feelings of physical fatigue, rather than sadness. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that minorities are less likely to seek help for mental illness due to a) not realizing they have a problem and b) fearing the cultural stigma that may accompany them if they get treatment.
Despite significant progress in the last few decades, mental health remains largely misunderstood. Sufferers of mental illness often do not receive the help they need due to a) lack of knowledge or misconceptions about their illness, b) fear of stigma, and/or c) cultural shame or pressure. The addition of mental health in school curriculums and changes in public policy to address issues with mental health are definitely a step in the right direction. However, we have a long way to go.
The mission of Pasand is to empower through education, and I challenge you to do just that! Encourage those around you to get the help they need because mental illness is a part of everyone’s life and should not be something to be ashamed of. Take a minute to consider how you think about mental illness, and challenge yourself to change your thinking. Then, challenge your family members and friends to change their thinking, and ask them to challenge their family members and friends, and so on and so forth. Education is a powerful tool, so let’s use it to empower those who need it!
Brittany Mathes is currently a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Florida State University. Prior to starting her doctoral studies, she was a Research Coordinator at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital and a Research Assisant in the Program for Anxiety, Stress, and OCD at the University of Miami, where she received her BA in Psychology in 2013. When she’s not being a nerd in the lab, she loves running, practicing yoga, cooking, and traveling.