Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.
How common is mental illness? Chances are you know someone who suffers from some form of a diagnosable mental health problem. Every day you may encounter people at work, at school, at the mall and maybe even at home. Does this seem possible?
The reason the prevalence of mental illness comes as a surprise to many of us is that we just don’t understand what mental illness is, we don’t talk about it and, as a society, we tend to buy into the myths instead of the facts. The National Institute of Mental Health asserts that nearly 20 percent of the adult population in the United States had a diagnosable mental illness in 2012—about 44 million adults. This number includes people who are minimally impaired. So while you may interact with people who suffer from depression or anxiety, the illness is not obvious.
This has a couple of implications. The good news is that if you realize that mental illness is common and does not necessarily disrupt a normal life, then you might start viewing mental illness as less threatening. On the other hand, if it is so common, then why do we know so little about it? Why don’t we talk about as easily as we might talk about physical ailments? Why don’t we have more support systems in place to help the millions of individuals who are dealing with mental illness in all its forms?
At the root of all these questions is the problem of stigma. Misconceptions and stereotypes about mental illness prevent us from dealing with it openly and honestly. We take the fear instead of the facts. As a result, many people avoid addressing issues with their own mental health and people with a diagnosis suffer from discrimination.
Many of our fears are based on the misguided belief that all mental health disorders are life-long, debilitating ailments that have no effective treatments. The facts are that many disorders may last less than a year, can have mild symptoms that do not impact work, and can be resolved with proven solution-centered talk therapies in a reasonably short period of time. In many cases, no drugs are needed.
Another common myth is that mentally ill people are dangerous. However, statistics have shown that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime rather than the perpetrator. Sadly, the headlines in the media often dramatize the opposite message. As a result, we reinforce our negative stereotypes and build another reason to fear mental illness.
Still another myth is that people with a mental illness are weird, crazy, socially awkward or inappropriate. We think we would be afraid around them, and may even avoid people when we learn they have a diagnosis. Yet in reality, there are “normal” people all around us who might battle depression, cope with a phobia, take medication for bipolar, or receive regular therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone with a mental illness can hold a job, raise a family, or be a volunteer. They may seem more well-adjusted and less stressed than you feel. They may even have better coping skills as a result of training and cognitive-behavior therapy.
Since the topic of mental illness is not a comfortable topic for most people, the myths remain unchallenged. Those with a diagnosis are reluctant to admit it for fear of being treated differently. Yet this leaves the misleading impression that mental illness is not relevant to all our lives. Worse yet, people who need help are often afraid to ask for it, and may not even know where to start getting help.
In the months ahead, I will continue to explore myths and truths about mental health, all in an effort to break down the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to get the help they need. If you need assistance, please call the MHA at (716) 433-3780. We are here for you!
Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on November 16, 2014.
Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.