Global Mental Health and the Stigma of Mental Illness
Throughout history, mental health issues have never really received the attention and care that they deserve. Because they lie at a complex intersection of environmental factors, brain chemistry, and genetics, mental health disorders are still not well understood, whether in the medical community or in the global community at large.
People struggling with mental disorders have long been chided as weak-willed, lazy, or somehow deserving of their condition based on life circumstances, rather than uplifted and supported. Even within the medical community, mental health education is lax. Conditions--even when they present themselves quite dramatically--often go undiagnosed unless a patient brings it up to a physician as a major concern. The most common mental disorders include major depression, anxiety and panic disorders, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD, though the total list of documented types of mental illness is extensive.
In order to promote mental health literacy worldwide, it’s important to understand what we mean by this. Nutbeam et al. in their book Goals and targets for Australia’s health in the year 2000 and beyond (1993) define the term as “the ability to gain access, understand, and use information in ways that promote and maintain good health.” Physical health care information is generally well disseminated among global populations. For instance, most people can recognize the symptoms of a cold, a seizure, or even a heart attack, and it’s common knowledge that eating well and exercising daily promote overall body health. However, in terms of mental health care information, many people cannot correctly recognize or differentiate between mental health conditions, nor do they understand the meaning of basic psychiatric terms.
Evident even in the way that people tend to talk about mental health issues, they are often seen as temporary, fleeting feelings or states of mind, rather than chronic disorders that people live with day in and day out. These preconceptions about mental illness also extend to the way people feel about psychiatric medication. Unlike prescribed medications for physical ailments like hyperthyroidism or diabetes which no one would argue aren’t essential to a patient’s well-being, antidepressants and neuroleptics are often viewed with a critical lens. Rumored to drastically alter a person’s personality, energy levels, and sense of self, medication for mental health disorders does nothing of the sort. The efficacy of psychiatric medication has been shown both in vivo and in vitro, both in the lab and in people who have wrestled back control of their lives once beginning medication. There is a general hesitance to talk about--much less advocate for--medication when it comes to treating mental illnesses, as essential and life-changing as those treatments can be for many people.
These public opinions surrounding mental health treatment bleed directly into the larger social stigma surrounding mental illness. People go to great lengths to avoid the personal label of mental illness out of a fear that a diagnosis will cast them in a pejorative light. Many people even avoid seeking treatment because of the emotional burden over being labeled as mentally ill. Less than 40 percent of those who sought a physician’s help and were diagnosed with a mental illness will actually complete a prescribed treatment regimen.
Commonly held stereotypes about people with mental illnesses include the perception that they are violent, dangerous, incapable of independence, incompetent, or that their illness exists because of personal life choices. These negative stereotypes contribute to prejudice and discrimination in the workforce, in schools, and in every facet of social life. To take on the mantle of a mental illness diagnosis, one is simultaneously taking on the mantle of a marginalization.
Because untreated mental health conditions contribute substantially to disability, economic loss, and family strain, it’s important to advocate for the best care possible for those with mental disorders. Allocating a portion of research funding towards finding the root causes of mental illness may make it possible to prevent their escalation in young adulthood and protect those predisposed to disease. Expanding the breadth of treatments publically available to people living with mental illness will help to give everyone--even people from disadvantaged backgrounds--equal access to potentially life-saving therapies.
It’s also just important to drive home the true impact of promoting public awareness. Reducing social stigma will go such a long way for people struggling silently and will provide a forum for discussion, rather than reprimandation. With social stigma reduced, people will be able to advocate for themselves and for their best lives, improving and enriching the community around them from the inside out.
Social Ties and Mental Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3455910/pdf/11524_2006_Article_44.pdf
No health without mental health: https://bit.ly/2Mqp1Th
Grand challenges in global mental health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3173804/
How Stigma Interferes with Mental Health Care: http://www.academia.cat/files/425-8237-DOCUMENT/Howstigmainterfereswithmentalhealthcare.pdf
Mental health of young people: http://www.sangath.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Mental-health-of-young-people....pdf
Mental health literacy: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8fcf/4d1ff7f80da4be456cdad63405f0b53dc71a.pdf
Mental Health Conditions: https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions