In recent decades , statistics have indicated between 25 percent and 50 percent of the population will experience a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. But new research using more exhaustive methods indicates this percentage may be much higher. A study in New Zealand intermittently screened people for signs of mental illness from birth to midlife. It found that more than 80 percent of participants developed a mental illness. No matter how we look at it, a huge proportion of people are affected by or experience mental illness.
Yet stigma and misunderstanding pervade our culture’s perceptions of mental health. While it’s true that more people than ever believe we should treat mental illness with the seriousness and care of any other illness, some taboos have intensified. As of 2009, people were twice as likely as in 1950 to believe that the mentally ill tend to be violent—a belief not backed by statistical evidence. In fact, people suffering from a mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence than the general population. If they have a severe mental illness, that statistic jumps to 10 times as likely.
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. 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 college students take a portion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Half of the students were asked to disclose whether they had a history of mental illness before they began the test. Students who had a history of mental illness and were asked to disclose it did half as well as those with a mental illness who were not asked. So we can see that the stress of being part of a stigmatized group is often more damaging than the illness itself.
The above examples are enlightening, but a look at homelessness and incarceration is downright shocking. Roughly one-third of America’s homeless suffer from a severe mental illness. Compare that to only six percent of the general population. In 2014, “PBS NewsHour” examined the number of mentally ill people in jail. The statistics easily exceed 50 percent across state, federal, and local facilities. Inadequate access to medical treatment and shelter are undoubtedly at play here.
Ending Stigma for a Healthy Society
We’ve established there is a problem, but what can we do about it? Here are some practical things you can undertake, while encouraging others to do the same.
Reconsider what is “normal” and treat others with respect. It may help to familiarize yourself with the neurodiversity paradigm. Nick Walker, the creator of neurocosmopolitanism.com, gives the following explanation: “The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity—a perspective or approach that boils down to these fundamental principles:
1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.
2.) 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.
3.) 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.”
The New Zealand study suggests that only about 17 percent of people will not develop a disorder by middle age—so one could say that so-called “normal” cognitive functioning is probably quite rare. This means that the neurodiversity paradigm could very well be the paradigm of the future.
How to Fight Mental Illness as a Society
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. There is scientific evidence that medications work well for some people. There is also scientific evidence that diet and exercise can improve mental health. The bottom line: 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. Mentally ill characters on primetime television are 10 times more likely than other characters to commit a violent crime. Yet 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. We should talk about this inaccuracy openly. Challenge the myth that mentally ill people are more violent if you hear someone spouting it.
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. State funding for mental healthcare has dropped by over $4 billion since 2008. More people with serious mental illnesses are in prisons and nursing homes than in mental health facilities. 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 we or 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, sometimes treatment is necessary. That treatment may come in the form of talk therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of all three. There are hundreds of mental illnesses with countless symptoms. That said, 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, sleeping, or hygiene 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
- Extended period of indifference or depression
- Substance abuse
- Extremes in behavior—anger, hostility, anxiety, or violence
- Delusions or hallucinations
- Feeling disconnected from reality
How to Support Someone With a Mental Illness
We’ve discussed destigmatization on a societal level, but how do we deal with mental health issues that affect us personally? Remembering to be compassionate could make a huge difference in our own or someone else’s recovery process. Many of us are ill-equipped in this regard, but there are resources available to 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 we discover that we, or someone close to us, has a mental illness. However, it is possible not to act on those emotions in damaging or hurtful ways. Accept what you are feeling, and try to be honest with yourself about what actions will help the situation.
Encourage them to seek help. If the person has not yet sought 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 you are suffering from 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. We have access to an unprecedented amount of information. Unfortunately, this is also true of misinformation. 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 with yourself. You probably will not do the right thing every time. That’s OK. Learning to cope is a process. The important thing is that you keep trying. Be aware of ways you could improve your approach, but don’t beat yourself up about doing the wrong thing.
Whether on a societal level or a personal one, compassionate responses to mental illness can help save lives. Between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 24 percent. Honest conversations and tangible cultural and structural changes have to take place if we wish to see it move in the other direction.