The Ugly Stigma of Mental Health


Since the tragic, on-air killing of two journalists on Wednesday morning in Virginia, discussion has turned to mental health and mental illness.

The subject of identifying and keeping those suffering from some type of mental illness has been linked to talks of gun control, ways to keep those who are afflicted from access to firearms and better identification of those who may be ill or suffering.

It is good that the nation is talking about mental health and mental illness. However, a lot of the conversation is reflecting the stigma, fear and misinformation about mental illness.

It is very evident that many speaking out are lumping all those who have mental concerns or issues into a basket of loonies or nutcases or crazed killers waiting for the opportunity to lash out with violence.

Some of the violence, however, is not committed by those with a mental condition, but rather a snap and acting out due to a situational reaction. Yet, we want to make everyone who does such acts a crazy person.

This shows a lack of understanding and education on the range of mental illnesses and the various treatments, remedies and solutions to maintaining good mental health.

There was a time when cancer or AIDS was only mentioned in whispers. Today those diseases are talked about openly.

There was a time that shame and revulsion was attached to those who were inflicted with these illnesses. Even the families were often ostracized or talked about in hushed tones.

Times changed as did perceptions and advances in treatment and research increased. Sadly, mental illness still carries it’s own “scarlet letter” bringing shame, guilt and false, hurtful jibes at not just those of us who have some form of mental affliction, but also our families.

People don’t want to talk about mental problems.

Even insurance companies and the government do not treat or look at mental health in the same light as physical health. Mental illness is too often not treated the same as any other illness. Even the Affordable Care Act does not provide the proper standing to treatment of mental illness, but relegates it to an inferior condition and limited treatment.

Pregnancy is treated as any other illness by insurance companies, but far too many policies limit, to the detriment of the patient, treatment of mental problems.

Then we wonder why so many who have a mental concern or issue fall back into the darkness, the gloom, the despair that so often accompanies such conditions.

Insurance stops paying. Patients are released due to prescribed set number of days of treatment. Those afflicted are left to stand on their own and make it the best they can.

Courts and states a long time ago closed down state run mental facilities, which sadly proved inadequate. These facilities were mostly a means of keeping the “mad” folk away from society in general.

Families would place their loved ones in such centers and forget they existed. When those hospitals and facilities were closed down, many of those who had resided there were sent into the streets to fend for themselves.

Even today, if anyone has any type of mental illness, parents are reluctant to admit their child could have such a problem. Siblings recoil. Classmates, fellow workers, church members pull away and try to pretend they don’t exist or do not have a problem.

There are so many levels of mental illness. So many of these conditions are treatable.

There are some for which there is no effective treatment, but those are the minority of cases.

For many of us, such as myself, we suffer from depression. People are so clueless to what depression is.

Then there are those with bipolar or schizophrenic conditions. Others have varied affective disorders or adjustment reactions.

Yet, we speak in whispered tones or we refuse to acknowledge the mentally ill exist or that anyone of us could have a family member with “problems”.

Yes, we need to strengthen laws, medical and psychological exams, background checks to insure that those with a mental illness that could threaten or lead to acts of violence be kept from obtaining weapons. But at the same time we must change the perception of mental illness.

We must embrace mental health.

We must treat mental illness the same as any other illness.

We must get rid of the stigma, the shame, the condemnation of those who may need help for a lifetime, episodically, or just a little help in getting over a hurdle.

We need acceptance and tolerance.

We need education.

We need better understanding.

Until society comes to grips with the fact that not all of us are the paragons of mental stability in the same way that not all of us are titans in physical prowess, we will continue to see those needing treatment go untreated.

We will continue to see parents, loved ones, children, spouses, friends refusing to talk about the concerns and issues of someone with a mental problem until it’s too late.

We must embrace each other warts and all.

We must start talking openly without shame, without stigma about mental illness and mental health. We need to break the barriers in health insurance that still refuses to recognize mental illness as the same as any other illness.

From the Desert with my feet firmly planted in the Cornfield, the nation needs to be having a conversation about mental illness and mental health, but we also need a change in our attitudes and perceptions about those of us who deal with or are afflicted with some type of mental issue or concern.

Then, and only then, may we be better able to identify and prevent those who may be heading toward a violent and tragic end.

With the case of the Virginia reporter turned killer, everyone found him to be difficult, hard to work with, but did not see he was mentally ill.

This happens all too often.

In part because none of us want to admit we need help. Admit we are sick.

The stigma prevents too many of us from being who we are and seeking the help we need.