Blog

On the Wrong Road: Stigma and Mental Illness

Brittney Doll-Schaeffer, MS, LMFT, CPS

I passed a hitchhiker on the road yesterday. He was holding a cardboard sign that said “Tulsa Oklahoma.” While that’s not an unusual sight here in Wichita, what I found ironic was that he was holding a south-bound sign on an east-bound road. He had the motivation to take him to Tulsa but not the correct thoroughfare.

Those who struggle with mental health challenges often tell me that this is what it feels like to have a mental illness. They often know what they want, know what they should be doing, and might even be able to mentally picture how to get there but their minds are leading them down a different path. How infuriating!

October 2-8 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has initiated a #StigmaFree pledge in an attempt to change the way that the world sees individuals with mental illness and to prevent stigma. There are three ways that you can sign up to be involved:

1. Learn about mental health issues
  • Did you know that 1 in 5 adults (approximately 43.8 million people) experiences mental illness each year?
  • Did you know that 1 in 5 youth experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life? And that over 50% of our youth received mental health services last year?
  • Did you know that approximately 16 million people experienced depression last year?
  • Did you know that approximately 41 million people experienced PTSD, OCD or other phobias?
  • Did you know that more than 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system struggle with a mental health challenges?

Mental illness is universal. Every person in our country has been impacted by mental illness either personally or through a friend or loved one. It is relevant. Here and now.

2. See the person and not the illness

I personally believe that seeing the illness is a step up from where most individuals typically land. I think we’re too quick to see an individual’s behavior and discount them without even considering that there might be an illness beneath the behavior. Too often people are stigmatized because of behavior.

The majority of individuals in the legal system struggle with some form of mental illness. Over 80% of them have experienced trauma as a child.

More than 90% of youth who die by suicide have a mental health condition.

Approximately 20 veterans are lost each day to suicide.

Think about that young person sitting in juvie. What might he have experienced that led to this experience? What are some of the life goals that he has that might never be realized because of his mental challenges? What about our veteran population? Why is it that the homeless population is comprised of so many veterans? What might they have experienced that caused their minds to be so overwhelmed?

3. Take action on mental health issues

The success rate for individuals that receive mental health treatment is anywhere from 60-80%. But sadly, most individuals do not receive treatment because of stigma. A survey conducted in 2004 revealed that more than 50% of our nation believed that major depression was caused by the way someone was raised, having too many life expectations, or having a lack of willpower to be better. More than 60% of our nation believed that people with mental illness should “suck it up,” or “pull yourself together.”

For this reason, many individuals that struggle with mental illness never receive help. They are afraid that families and friends will turn their back on them. They fear losing a job or housing. They fear being labeled as “psychotic” or “crazy.”

You can make a difference by educating those around you on the importance of being #StigmaFree and compassionate toward individuals that struggle with mental health challenges. Let’s recognize that so many of the people that we encounter simply want to get to Tulsa but are sitting on the side of the wrong roadway. Compassionate care and empathy may help them find their way, recognize their own self-determination, and reach their true potential.