THE BLOG

Combating the Stigma of Mental Illness

03/16/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015
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Mental illness in the United States of America is an ever-increasing issue that affects millions of individuals in various ways and to varying degrees of severity. While it's true that mental illness can sometimes be treated with great success, including the near eradication of symptoms in certain patients, sometimes symptoms are so debilitating that the individual in question is unable to work or otherwise provide for themselves. For these individuals, symptoms may never fully disappear.

A 2014 report released by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) regarding the prevalence of mental illness in the United States of America found that, after accounting for substance use disorders, as many as 25 percent of adults and 40.3 percent of adolescents reported suffering an episode of mental illness within a 12-month period. While it should be noted that the difficulty of estimating the prevalence of mental illness is quite difficult and statistics can -- and often do -- vary, the numbers reported by the CRS are similar to those released by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). In their 2014 report which examined state estimates of adult mental illness from 2011 and 2012, the SAMHSA found that at least 42.5 million adults in the United States suffer from some sort of mental illness. Additionally, around 9.3 million American individuals suffer from a disorder severe enough to significantly impact or impede daily activities.

As statistics regarding mental illness in the United States continue to rise, the importance of ensuring adequate access to care is paramount. Of equal importance is the question of what factors impact an individual's decision to seek aid, as well as how and when they decide seek treatment. One of the most consistently influential factors affecting these decisions is the stigma, both perceived and actualized, towards the mentally ill.

The Facts about Stigma

The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) surveyed attitudes and beliefs about mental illness in a 2007 study. They found that the overwhelming majority of adults -- 78 percent of adults with mental illness and 89 percent without -- believed that treatment is an effective method to help patients lead healthy and normal lives. While 57 percent of all adults surveyed felt that individuals are compassionate and sympathetic to those with mental illness, however, only 25 percent of adults with mental illness believed that to be true.

Negative perception of people experiencing mental illness is widespread. Despite the fact that the success rate for treatment of mental illness is as high as 80 percent in certain disorders, many people will avoid seeking help for fear of being labeled as "crazy." They worry about the negative impact that seeking treatment and receiving a diagnosis will have upon their ability to find work, housing, and social acceptance. It should be noted that stigma can be experienced in almost every aspect of life, including school, professional environments, family, coworkers, and even individuals working in the health care system. There is also evidence to suggest that ethnic and minority individuals experience mental health stigma at greater rates than others.

From Where Does Stigma Stem?

It is one thing to consider the statistics surrounding a problem, but it's quite another to question why the statistics exist. With all of the available information regarding the overwhelming prevalence of mental illness in the United States, why does the distinct and harmful barrier of social stigma exist?

As noted by the respected mental health website Time to Change, the stigma toward mental illness stems from the popular misconceptions about the symptoms and consequences of various disorders as well as the portrayal of mental illness in popular culture. Despite evidence to the contrary, for example, many people still believe that mental health issues are rare and that individuals experiencing a real form of mental illness wouldn't be able to work. The truth is that as many as one in four individuals will experience a mental health problem during the course of a year, and many of them continue working. Another popular misconception is that individuals with mental health problems, particularly with diagnosed disorders such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, typical exhibit violent and out-of-control behavior. While it is true that some mentally ill people demonstrate those tendencies, the truth is that individuals with mental illness are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others. According to information released by the University of Washington, for example, over 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder.

Additionally, the portrayal of individuals with mental health issues in television leaves much to be desired. One study found that, while half of the instances involving individuals with mental health issues were sympathetic, the majority of references to mental health -- 63 percent -- were either dismissive or negative. Other television portrayals were actively feeding into and reinforcing existing social stigma.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.