May is Mental Health Month. Established by Congress in 1949, this designation was made to help illustrate the importance of mental health issues to the overall health and well-being of American citizens.  While mental health care has changed dramatically since 1949, one thing still remains: the perceived stigma regarding mental health conditions.

Despite the availability of relatively safe and efficacious treatments for these disorders, many individuals fail to seek treatment for their mental health conditions.  Inadequate treatment of mental health conditions remain a significant public health concern: costing millions of dollars in lost productivity, absenteeism, and health care costs.   Existing barriers to receiving adequate mental health treatment include the availability of appropriately trained mental health providers, affordable treatment options, and perceived stigma.  Perceived stigma is the belief that people will devalue and discriminate against individuals who use mental health services and/or have a mental illness.

Perceived stigma can cause a variety of problems for individuals experiencing mental health conditions, including:

  • a delay or failure to seek appropriate treatment
  • premature discontinuation of treatment
  • rejection or ridicule by family and friends
  • discrimination at work, school, or church
  • inadequate health insurance coverage of mental health conditions
  • feelings of anger, frustration, shame, or low self-esteem
  • encountering harassment or violence

Mental illness was commonly thought of as a personal character weakness; we now know that mental health disorders have a biological basis and can be treated like any other medical condition.  Yet as recently as 2008, an APA survey revealed that more than 50% of Americans saw stigma and potential negative perceptions as barriers that would prevent them from seeking treatment.  While an estimated 75 millions Americans experience a mental health disorder in any given year, only one in four will receive treatment. Current lifetime prevalence rates for any mental disorder (including substance abuse) indicate that 57.4 percent of all Americans will personally experience mental illness at some time in their life.

Historically, the traditional medical model has separated mental and physical health; only recently is science “catching up” and revealing the multitude of “mind and body” connections.  We now know that our physical health is directly impacted by our emotional health; and that suffering from a mental condition can be a devastating and debilitating as any physical condition can be.

Despite the progress that has been made in correcting and removing many of the misconceptions surrounding mental health conditions, we still have a long way to go to defeat many of the biases, fears, and misinformation that people continue to have about mental health and the subsequent stigma these attitudes can create. By talking about mental health, we can raise awareness and dispel the stereotypes that exist about individuals with mental health conditions.

What can you do to fight the stigma?

  • Seek treatment– If you suffer from a mental health condition, don’t let fear keep you from getting relief by seeking appropriate diagnosis and treatment.  Safe and effective treatments are available.
  • Don’t define yourself by your disorder–  You are not “Depressed”, you are a person with depression.
  • Utilize available resources– seek out support and assistance groups such as Celebrate Recovery and NAMI. If you can not afford your medications, inquire about patient assistance programs.
  • Speak out and speak up– Your story may encourage someone else to seek the treatment they have needed but didn’t have the courage to ask for.
  • Don’t allow your mental health condition to cause you to feel shame or self-doubt– Mental health conditions are real medical conditions; they are not character-weaknesses or punishments.  By coming to terms with your own illness, you show others that their judgements are based on a lack of understanding rather than reality.  If you are having problems with negative self-esteem or shame, seek appropriate counseling to come to terms with these feelings.
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