Last Saturday, Oct. 10, social and news media outlets buzzed with talk of World Mental Health Day. For one day a year, mental illness gets to step beyond its stigma. In this day and age, the understanding of mental illness has come far from where it once was, but people still stigmatize those who suffer from these diseases and often believe they have a choice in their condition.
Considering that mental illness is an issue reserved for hushed voices, the number of people that mental illness actually afflicts would surprise some people. According to a fact sheet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults − approximately 61.5 million Americans − experiences mental illness in a given year.
The common social perception seems to be that those who suffer from mental disorders are weak or they’re not putting in the full effort in to be happy. According to a New York Times article, which cited various surveys and studies, fewer than half of Americans consider depression to be a health problem, and more than two in five say it is a sign of personal weakness.
This displays the major disparity in the way that people around the world view mental illness in comparison to physical illness. If someone was born with or develops a physical illness, society is quick to support or revere them. When someone suffers from a mental illness, society likes to turn a blind eye.
No one would ever tell someone they should just try harder to feel better about their punctured lung, yet someone who suffers from depression is probably told to just “look on the bright side” anytime they voice their pains.
According to an article by the American Psychological Association, Thomas R. Insel, MD, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illnesses are no different from any other chronic or physical illness. He says all chronic diseases have behavioral components as well as biological components.
“The only difference here is that the organ of interest is the brain instead of the heart or pancreas. But the same basic principles apply,” Insel said.
Insel’s words illustrate the fact that mental illness doesn’t differ much from physical illness in its biological origination. Mental illness doesn’t usually manifest in outstandingly physical or visible symptoms, which causes many people to question the presence of it in their friends and family. But you can’t just believe what you see.
The suffering for those with mental illnesses emanates from the part of the body that controls the function of all the others. So not only does the suffering originate imperceptibly, but it also hinders the operation of the most essential body parts.
Having an afflicted motherboard organ goes beyond just having bad thoughts or moods – despite the common perception being that there’s nothing more to it. Mental disorders hinder the everyday functioning of those that possess them; the effects of which ripple out across their lives.
In the DSM-IV, the handbook by which psychiatrists classify and diagnose diseases, every disorder has a clause that reads, “The *symptoms specific to the disorder* cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
Which means, above all, what is necessary for a person to be given a diagnosis of a mental disorder, is tangible distress in important areas of living their everyday life. The language of this points the blame of this distress at the disease, not the person – which is how society at large should view this issue.
No one would blame someone for having a heart attack, so how can people point fingers at those who are crippled mentally by their disorders? Although society may not be prepared to view these two types of illnesses on the same plane, it is time that mental illness gets its share of understanding.
A complete change of perspective in society is not easily achieved; it takes one person at a time changing their perspective on mental illness, to change how the world views it at large. As anonymous once said, “No single raindrop considers itself responsible for a flood,” so be the first drop to fall. Have empathy for those who suffer from mental illness and attempt to treat them as you would someone with a physical ailment and maybe one day the tides on mental illness could turn.