More than 51 million Americans have experienced a mental illness. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience a serious mental illness each year. It’s clear that a significant proportion of people are affected by or experience mental illness.1
Yet stigma and misunderstanding pervade American culture’s perceptions of mental health. While it’s true that many believe we should treat mental illness with the seriousness and care of any other illness, some taboos have intensified. The belief that the mentally ill tend to be violent, for example, is not backed by statistical evidence. In fact, only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to of people with a serious mental illness. In contrast, adults with a serious mental illness are actually 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes.2
The Impact of Stigma
Stigma surrounding mental illness creates barriers for those who experience them. The American Bar Association only shifted its policy regarding mental health disclosure on forms for law school and its financing in 2015. Now, instead of asking about mental health diagnosis, the focus is on a person’s conduct.3 Prior to that, many prospective lawyers were denied admittance due to a history of mental illness even if they had been successfully treated.
It is also clear that stigma makes it difficult for mentally ill people to perform to their full potential. In one study, researchers had medical students apply for residencies. Some of the respondents were asked to disclose whether they had a history of mental illness in their applications. The study concluded that “disclosing depression during the residency application process puts an applicant at a notable, however not insurmountable, disadvantage compared with applicants who do not disclose mental illness.”4
An individual’s potential may be affected in other ways due to mental illness. Approximately 20.5% of America’s homeless have a serious mental health condition. Additionally, 37% of adults in the U.S. state and federal prison system have been diagnosed with a mental illness.1
How to Fight Mental Illness as a Society
Here are some practical things you can undertake, as well as encourage others to do the same.
Reconsider what is “normal” and treat others with respect. It may help to familiarize yourself with the neurodiversity paradigm. The Foundations for Divergent Minds (FDM) nonprofit gives the following explanation: “The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity—a perspective or approach that boils down to these fundamental principles:
- Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.
- The idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ type of brain or mind, or one ‘right’ style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘right’ ethnicity, gender, or culture.
- The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.”5
Don’t discourage people from seeking the treatment of their choice. People often try to boil mental illness down to either biological or environmental causes. Purists on both sides contribute to stigmatization by invalidating different forms of treatment. Many mental illnesses have very clear ties to genetics and biology. Many do not. How another person chooses to help themselves is not your decision.
Don’t buy into mainstream fictional portrayals or sensationalism when there is a tragedy. While films that depict mental illness are often critical and financial successes, some movies that feature violent mentally ill characters can increase prejudice against the mentally ill. And as referred to at the beginning of this article, studies show that mentally ill people are actually less likely to commit violent crimes than the general population. News outlets also have a tendency to sensationalize violent crimes committed by mentally ill people.
Support policy changes that aim to improve conditions for mentally ill people. Disproportionate occurrences of homelessness and incarceration point to a need for structural change. The number of adults who have reported mental health concerns has increased by more than 30% from 2019 to 2021.6 This highlights the need for support of resources such as accessible healthcare and housing.
Recognizing Mental Illness in Yourself and Others
It can be difficult to recognize and accept when our loved ones are experiencing a mental illness. But thoughts or behaviors that have a negative impact on the person experiencing them warrant attention. Just as with any other illness, treatment may be necessary. That treatment may include medication, counseling or therapy, social support, and education.
Here are some common signs of mental illness that can help you recognize when you or a loved one should seek professional help.
- Change to usual eating or sleeping habits
- Reduced functioning or an inability to deal with everyday routine
- Suicidal thoughts
- Confused or illogical thinking
- Extreme “highs” (euphoric mood or grandiose ideas) and “lows” (depressed mood)
- Wide mood swings or sudden changes in behavior
- Abrupt, out-of-character social withdrawal
- Substance abuse
- Delusions or hallucinations
- Feeling disconnected from reality
How to Support Someone With a Mental Illness
Remembering to be compassionate towards someone experiencing a mental illness could make a huge difference in their recovery process. There are resources available that can help. Here are a few basic tips to get you started.
Avoid placing blame or shaming the person. It is understandable to feel emotions like anger or fear when it is discovered that someone close to you has a mental illness. However, it is possible not to act on those emotions in damaging or hurtful ways.
Encourage them to seek help. If the person has not yet sought professional help, encourage them to do so. Explain that you have noticed behaviors or symptoms that might point to a mental disorder. Remind them that those conditions are treatable. It is easy to feel hopeless when someone is experiencing a mental illness, so the knowledge that people can—and do—get better is important. The person may have misconceptions or misunderstandings about the effectiveness of treatment. If so, listen to their thoughts and try to provide accurate information.
Don’t try to take over the situation. Having a mental illness usually does not render a person incapable of making decisions. While it might be appropriate to help with initial appointments or some daily tasks, you should not try to do everything for them. Allowing them to maintain control of their own life and treatment plan can aid in the recovery process. Instead of making assumptions about what a person needs from you, ask them.
Educate yourself about the illness. Modern society has access to an unprecedented amount of information. Seek out trusted sources related to the illness you or a loved one is experiencing. Ask yourself whether the information you have is backed up with scientific evidence. Remember that not all studies are equal. Look at how the study was conducted, who was involved (sponsors, researchers, participants), and determine whether the results could be replicated.
Be patient. You probably will not do the right thing every time. Be aware of ways you could improve your approach, but don’t be concerned about doing the wrong thing.