THE BLOG
05/09/2013 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013

Mental Health Patients: Ending Stigma Must Come From Us

May is Mental Health Month, and this year it is also the month when the first DSM since 1994 will be released. Naturally, much of the discussion revolving around mental health is currently focused on the DSM-5 -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition -- and its new additions, its flaws, and its improvements. The new manual is the result of an unprecedented approach of communal input, or the result of science that lacks validity, depending on whom you ask. Either way, the manual is garnering attention from academics and professionals in the psychology world and from the public at large, thanks to widespread coverage in the media in anticipation of its release. In my opinion, the scrutiny of this controversial new manual is drawing attention away from the more important aspect of mental disorders: the people who suffer from them.

Thanks to huge advances in the world of mental health over the past few decades -- really, leaps and bounds, if you consider that the Willowbrook State School debacle happened only 26 years ago -- in part due to the DSM, as well as huge increases in research and awareness, such as the kind encouraged by Mental Health Month. However, despite the clearer understanding we now have of many psychological disorders and their causes, and despite the incredible advances in treatments and drugs, there remains an indelible stigma attached to those who are diagnosed with any number of disorders.

We've come a long way from the shameful era when mental health patients were shuttered away, herded off to "lunatic asylums" where they lived out their days in deplorable conditions unfit for animals, let alone humans. But that doesn't mean we've reached the quintessential paradigm, that idyllic world where mental health patients are considered no different from patients of physiological diseases and judged no differently than anyone who has an unasked-for illness. We still have ways to go. Mental Health Month is a start, but few other than those personally affected by mental health issues are even aware of the month's designation.

I'm not an expert in the field, and aside from high school AP Psychology, I've never studied psychology in any official way. But I did suffer from an eating disorder for seven years and spent my own time in a psychiatric hospital. I know, perhaps more than the unafflicted professional, what it is to feel the stigma of mental health disorders. I know the fear of being labeled or judged, and I know the shame of admitting my disorder; it is that shame that was responsible in large part for my delayed appeal for help.

But thankfully, I did seek help, and in the years since I've recovered, I've come to realize something important: Removing the stigma of eating disorders and of mental health disorders in general has to begin with those who are diagnosed with them. When we as patients are reticent about our disorders, when we hesitate to say what it is that we are being medicated for, or when we hide our pills and our therapy sessions from our friends and our family, we are perpetuating the idea that psychological disorders are shameful and deserving of judgment. If we had a chronic illness, no doubt we would tell our friends and welcome their support. If we were hospitalized for cancer, we would want our family by our sides to rally for our health. Mental health is no different, and deserves equal treatment. You didn't choose to be depressed or ask for OCD. There should be nothing embarrassing about being treated for panic disorder or bipolar disorder.

I don't think everyone needs to publicize their disorders; I believe that many people need their privacy for reasons other than fear of stigmatization. But to hide it completely is to give in to the stigma and encourage its continuation. We need to be honest about our conditions with ourselves and others if we want others to stop judging us. Once we as patients are able to speak about our illnesses candidly, we can place the pressure on the rest of the world to accept us openly; until then, we cannot expect more of others than we are willing to offer ourselves.

For more by Simi Lichtman, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.