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Misinformation and fear stigmatize mental illness

Negative stereotypes discourage those who suffer from seeking help.

By Melanie Sharif. Originally published on Feb. 13th, 2015.

It’s not a big deal to tell friends that you have the flu or any other non-terminal illness, but it’s still hard to tell anyone when you’re suffering from anxiety or depression. The stigma is very real; victims of mental illness are often reluctant to take psycho-pharmaceutical drugs even if medication could help. Admitting you’re mentally ill is a bit like coming out these days: Both are confessions that could potentially alienate friends and family.

This silence surrounding mental illness is not a coincidence. The stigma is rooted in misinformation or lack of access to reliable sources. The concept of mental health and the disciplines that explain it — psychology and neuroscience — are relatively new.

Scientists are just now beginning to understand small slivers of how the brain works. Like any other organ, the brain can malfunction in ways that aren’t obvious. In other words, a brain imbalance can warrant medical intervention even when a patient doesn’t show observable signs of distress. This concept has yet to completely trickle down to the general population. Laymen continue to describe others with words like “crazy” and “insane” even though these terms aren’t used in the mental health field. Often, we rely on these words when we are uncomfortable, rather than to successfully identify a mentally ill person in need of help.

But misinformation among the public doesn’t fully explain the stigma held against the mentally ill. Our aversion to mental illness lies in our fear of vulnerability.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental illnesses in the United States, but those who suffer continue to feel immense shame. It is difficult for us to speak about sadness and worry. We prefer to either keep it to ourselves, entrust it to a close friend who won’t judge or pay someone else to listen. Even if we had a more accepting public stance on mental health, admitting to people that there’s bad things going on in your head is akin to walking naked in a crowd of people: You’re bearing your imperfections.

We rely on our brains to do their jobs correctly. It’s hard to imagine that our thoughts could lead us to dysfunction in a way that is, at least initially, out of our control. Many people experience painful thoughts whose origins are seemingly unknown. Mental illness is stigmatized because its vagueness terrifies us. If we are to mitigate what has become an epidemic, we must become OK with bad thoughts so that we can better reach out to those who are having far, far too many of them.

Originally published in Pipe Dream Newspaper, displayed here online. Article is displayed on the current domain with express written permission.

Melanie Sharif