Despite massive leaps forward in understanding the biological underpinnings of mental illness, the way people affected by mental illness are treated hasn’t seen comparable improvements. People who live with mental illness are often ostracized and expected to simply change their thoughts and behavior. Too often, our society doesn’t recognize that these things are just out of a person’s control. Too often, we fail to offer those with mental health conditions the same concern and compassion we would show someone with a physical condition.
How can this be? Well, stigma—the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination directed towards those living with mental illness—is very real and influential. When people without mental health conditions paint a broad idea of what mental illness looks like, they often create two distinct groups: “us” and “them,” “normal” and “abnormal.” Fear and a lack of education is what causes this reaction.
Many people are unaware of what causes mental illness and how it impacts people in varying degrees. This isn’t necessarily their fault as much as it is a failure in the education and health care systems. A lot of it also comes from society: The American notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” causes people to believe that any and all problems can be solved through grit and hard work. This is a closed-minded approach that fails to account for realistic expectations.
Those living with mental health conditions don’t want it any more than a person would want a broken leg. But focused thought and effort can’t make depression go away, just as focusing on healing won’t fix your shattered bone.
Stigma is unfortunately not a problem that we can eradicate overnight. We need to teach people that mental illness is a complicated and unique problem, that every case is different and treatments that work for one person won’t necessarily work for another. There is no panacea for the brain’s problems.
No matter how much we educate or try to normalize the experience of mental illness, stigma can and probably will persist. But maybe by stressing the similarities between physical conditions and mental conditions—discomfort, worry, struggle, pain—then maybe more people might realize that those with a mental health condition need just as much support and understanding as anyone else. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a good place to start.
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Rob Marko-Franks is a former Advocacy & Public Policy intern at NAMI National in Arlington, VA. He is a student at Grinnell College interested in helping students and their families tackle the challenge of asking for help.