By Jess Szabo and Susan Townley
We tend to be fairly straightforward about our physical illnesses. We may not wish to share our health information with certain people, and we may believe we only have a cold when we actually have the flu, but we’re not likely to hide or deny a bad knee, allergies, or a broken bone. This is not always true of mental illness. People struggling with mental illness may make an effort to hide or deny their condition due to social stigma that remains about mental health issues.
“Stigma and fear associated with mental illness results from ignorance and fear that have become integrated into western culture,” explained Susan Braider, head of the Mental Health Committee of For the Good, Inc. “As far back as the beginning of recorded history, mental illness has been stigmatized. Think of the Salem witch trials and other periods in history, and the way we tend to treat people whose thoughts or behavior trouble or threaten us.”
Braider further explained that this fear stems from our lack of medical knowledge about mental illness for so much of our history.
“Until the late twentieth century, researchers had no way, other than talking and post mortars and animal models, to understand what was going on with mental illness,” she said. “Not being able to explain, understand, or control the mentally ill caused stigma.”
As a culture, we are now much more aware of the reality of mental illness and those who suffer from it. The national nonprofit organization National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers the opportunity to take the stigma free pledge. Their site also provides links to learn about mental illness, participate in awareness events, and take action on advocacy issues.
Mental illness is portrayed with dignity in several novels and films from the past ten years. “The Silver Linings Playbook,” by Matthew Quick, was published in 2012. The novel’s main character is complex, flawed, and seriously ill, but also resilient, kindhearted, and attractive. The novel was later adapted into a film starring popular actor Bradley Cooper.
The television show “Perception” ran on TNT from 2012 to 2015. It featured a brilliant college professor and consultant for the FBI who also happened to have paranoid Schizophrenia.
Celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Hamm have been open about their struggle with mental illness.
Yet despite the many improvements made in our understanding and treatment of those with mental illnesses, stigma remains.
“People hide their illnesses because they are trying to maintain their lives, they are fearful of the consequences, they don’t know what else to do. Perhaps help is unavailable or unacceptable; at this moment in the US truly transformative treatment for serious mental illness is unavailable to all except those who can afford to pay for private psychiatric treatment,” Braider said.
Mental illness is associated with feelings of guilt and shame, feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, ambivalence that arise for reasons people cannot explain.”
One tactic they may use to alleviate that fear and shame is the adopting of “codes” that let others know something is wrong while deflecting the attention away from their true illness or symptoms.
Depressed people may say things like, “I’m tired,” or “I’m hanging in there,” rather than admit they are battling symptoms of depression. Other code words that may be used to hide depression include complaining of related physical symptoms like backaches, headaches, or stomach troubles, or insisting they seem out of sorts because they’re battling a cold or minor injury.
Some people do not realize they have a mental health issue. Depression can cause physical symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches, and a feeling of heaviness in the limbs. People who deal with anxiety often battle headaches, stomach issues, or feelings of tightness or tension in their muscles.
While some people persist in believing the classic misconception that all or most mentally ill people will lash out violently, others adopt a false belief from the other side of the behavior spectrum, and believe that a mentally ill person cannot or will not do anything. This erroneous belief typically stems from thinking everyone with a mental illness is always overwhelmed by their symptoms. People learn that depression can bring extreme fatigue, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating, and assume this means everyone with depression, or even everyone with a mental illness, is going to do nothing but sit around or lie in bed all day every day. Assuming someone cannot or will not do their job or finish their degree because of depression or another mental illness is about as realistic as assuming that someone cannot succeed because they have chronic respiratory problems, severe allergies, or a blood disorder; some peoples’ health problems prevent them from doing certain things and others’ do not, whether those problems are mental or physical in nature. But saying “I just don’t feel well,” can be a way to ward off this assumption at work or school.
Perhaps the most startling misconception about the mentally ill is that they want to suffer. Phrases like, “He needs to snap out of it,” or “If she’d just get some more exercise, she’d be better,” suggest that the person is just too lazy to implement the easy fix to their problem.
As Braider noted previously, mental health treatment may not be so simple to get, especially for those who lack financial resources. But even though it may not be simple, it is available. Braider urged anyone who experiences symptoms of mental illness to seek the best professional help available as soon as possible.
“Talk to a teacher or a guidance counselor at school,” she suggested. “Get a good family doctor and ask for a referral. Call [a hotline] for help. There is no shame in being sick.”