Dr. David| discusses Mental illness stigma

by Dr. David Clay McIntyre, DNP

“I can’t deal with you anymore! You’re nothing but a worthless, useless, lazy, cancer patient!”

Would you be able to hear anyone utter this statement without instinctively reacting in a way that can only be described as reflexive, instantaneous, guttural, contemptuous, and aggressive? Most people would be immediately offended, appalled, and completely caught off guard by the audacity of such a cruel statement, especially if directed at an individual with the distinct misfortune of contracting such a debilitating and terrible disease. I wager that everyone reading this article would feel obligated to strongly rebuke such a statement, while simultaneously attempting to stay out of jail for delivering the suitable shellacking a miscreant delivering such a statement would absolutely be deserving of.

With that being said, I would like to submit for your consideration a similar hypothetical statement.

“I can’t deal with you anymore! You’re nothing but a worthless, useless, lazy, drug addict!”

It is reasonable to assume the most common initial reactions to this statement are vastly different when compared to the initial reactions to the first statement. If your initial response to the second statement is accompanied by an equal degree of reflexive anger, intensity, and disgust, then I applaud you. However, if you found yourself agreeing with the second statement, even slightly, then you have just experienced the diffuse and pervasive stigmatization of people with mental illnesses in our communities.

Mental illnesses are legitimate disease processes deserving of the same degree of empathy and understanding commanded by any other disease process. Just as diabetes is related to chemical imbalances and irregularities involving the endocrine system and metabolism of glucose, mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. The brain is an organ just like the heart, kidney, lungs, or liver. The brain has the potential to be affected by disease just as any other organ.

Mental illness comes in many different forms including depression, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, personality disorders, cognitive disorders, traumatic brain disorders, and many others. Mental illness is no respecter of persons, race, religion, culture, or socioeconomic status. It affects millions of Americans each year, but continues to be misunderstood and stigmatized due to lack of public education and understanding. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Stigma is when someone views a person in a negative way just because they have a mental health condition.” Stigmatization of those with mental illness may be manifested in many ways such as bullying, rejection, discrimination, fear, and stereotyping. Stigmatization of people experiencing mental health issues increases the chance for the person to isolate themselves, become depressed, or commit suicide.

According to the NAMI, “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.” Chances are you have experienced mental health issues personally, or you know someone who has experienced mental health issues. It is our collective responsibility to recognize stigma as the negative, pervasive, and destructive entity that it is, educate ourselves about mental health issues, and promote a society capable of providing empathy and understanding toward those struggling with mental illness.

The pervasive nature of stigma in our society is directly related to our collective ignorance and misunderstanding of mental illness and the very existence of stigma. However, now that you have been made aware of the existence of stigma, it is your responsibility to make the difference in your immediate community. The cure for stigma is the utilization of compassion, empathy, and understanding (NAMI, 2018). Should mental illness rear its ugly head in your life, or in the life of someone you love, I sincerely hope you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by others who will show genuine empathy, understanding, compassion, love, and encouragement. Ridiculing, bullying, degrading, criticizing, or otherwise stigmatizing someone with mental illness is equivalent to subjecting someone with cancer, lupus, asthma, pneumonia, kidney stones, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s to the same degree of degradation, shame, and dehumanization.

I encourage you to visit the National Alliance on Mental Health website (https://www.nami.org) for additional information to educate yourself further regarding the challenges presented by mental illness and available resources for communities and those affected by mental illness.

If you are experiencing mental health crisis situation, or you know someone who is experiencing mental health crisis situation, please call 911, or 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor.