Mental Illness Stigma Keeps People From Seeking Help

Mental Illness Stigma Keeps People From Seeking Help

October 7-13, 2018 is National Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Woman with hands up, concealing her faceHalf of all lifetime cases of mental illness in the U.S. begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24. Yet, the average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years. Although approximately 44 million American adults experience a mental illness in any given year, less than half will receive treatment because mental illness stigma keeps people from getting help.

Although the general perception of mental illness has improved in recent years, studies show that stigma against those with mental illness is still powerful, and that most people attach negative stigmas to mental illness at a far higher rate than to other diseases and disabilities.

What Exactly is a Mental Illness?

A mental illness is a physical illness affecting how the body functions-just like diabetes, asthma, or any other illness. Mental illnesses cause disturbances in emotions, thoughts and behavior which make it difficult to cope with the ordinary demands and routines of life. Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headache or other unexplained aches and pains.

Mental illnesses affect approximately 19% of the adult population, 20% of teenagers and 13% of children each year. The most common mental conditions are anxiety disorders and mood disorders.

Anxiety disorders: 18.1% (42 million adults)

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness, interfering with the day-to-day living of approximately 8% of youth and 18.1% of adults each year. Types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder (panic attacks), agoraphobia (fear of public places), social phobia, and others.

Mood disorders: 9.5% (22.1 million adults)

Mood disorders affect an individual’s ability to regulate their mood. The two most common types are:

  • Major depression (affecting 6.9% of adults each year)
  • Bipolar disorder (affecting 2.6% of adults each year).
  • It’s estimated 11% of youth have a mood disorder.

What Causes Stigma?

Media stereotypes

When asked to describe mental illness, many of us recall movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rain Man” or “As Good As It Gets.” Each portrays individuals with mental illness as unable to function normally within society. In reality, only a fraction of those with mentally illness are unable to function healthily within society. But because the media consistently utilizes this stereotype of mental illness, it is seen as “reality.”

This stereotype is intensified by the news focusing on violent acts committed by individuals with mental illness. In actuality, only a very small fraction of the mentally ill become violent and harm themselves or others. However, by making these cases high profile, violent images become the only images many Americans associate with mental illness.

Lack of education

Until the advent of MRI and PET scans, the medical community had a limited understanding of what caused mental illness and how to treat it. Research is constantly advancing, creating a clearer understanding of the causes and effective treatments for mental illness.

However, our education system has not kept pace with the evolving understanding of the illness. Until recently, a student could graduate from high school and never receive any information about this group of illnesses which affects up to half of all Americans over their lifetime. Without accurate information, the movie and news images create definitions which are unchallenged and seem to be factual.

Consequences of Stigma

The high levels of stigma associated with mental illness make it difficult for individuals struggling to seek treatment. Often individuals fear being labeled as “crazy” and being ostracized if their friends, coworkers, boss, or neighbors become aware they have a mental illness. This fear of being “found out” causes people to avoid seeking treatment, fail to take medications, isolate, and lose self-esteem.

Studies show prejudice and discrimination against those who are mentally ill is pervasive and often as debilitating as the illness itself. Individuals with known mental illnesses are often denied housing, refused employment, discriminated against within their place of employment, and treated poorly by family, friends, and religious organizations.

The stigma of mental illness has high costs for individuals with mental illness, their families, our communities, our country and the world. We know treatment works. However, delay in treatment and lack of treatment affects all of us.

  • 37% of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older drop out of school … the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
  • 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems has a mental illness.
  • 26% of homeless adults in shelters live with serious mental illness.
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.
  • Serious mental illness costs the U.S. $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year.
  • 90% of those who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness.

How You Can Help Reduce Stigma and Discrimination

Practice acceptance and respect.

Individuals with mental illnesses live next door, teach our children, work in the next cubicle, and sit in the same pew at church. If we show these individuals respect and acceptance, we help remove one of the barriers to them successfully coping with their illnesses.

Know the facts.

Educate yourself about mental health conditions. Learn the facts instead of the myths.

Educate others.

Advocate within your circles of influence to ensure these individuals have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Often the everyday things, like having people see you as an individual not an illness, make the biggest difference.

Make a gift to the Pine Rest Patient Assistance Fund.

After stigma, another major barrier to getting treatment is cost. The Pine Rest Patient Assistance Fund (PAF) is available to individuals and families in our community who come to Pine Rest for care but have limited resources to pay for treatment. The number of people we can help each year depends on the generosity of our donors. In 2017, the PAF helped approximately 2,500 individuals.

100% of gifts are used to help reduce the cost of treatment for individuals and families with financial hardships.

Give Now

Jean Holthaus, LISW

Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.

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