Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness

Published On March 20, 2016 | March/April 2016

Keeping silent is not the answer to treat this common condition

By: Afshan Khan, MD and Michael S. Bishop, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S

Stigma – a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person, e.g., ”the stigma of mental illness.”

Susan was a 16-year-old high schooler. Through her middle school years, she aspired to be a physician and was set on the right path to reach her goal. Suddenly, life dramatically changed when her father lost his job and her mother was injured in a car accident. Susan fell into depression and anxiety and began cutting on herself, the only way she knew to cope. Too ashamed to talk to anyone, she took it to another level and made plans to end her misery. What influenced Susan was that she believed she could not talk to anyone.

What is it about our culture that discourages children and adults from talking to someone about their circumstances of mental illnesses? Prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge, advocate and emphasize the need for more access to mental health care and treatment for mental illness. Still, there seems a lack of understanding about the stigma surrounding mental illness. A lack of understanding and awareness is even more frightening when one reviews the statistics.

These statistics reveal that people who struggle with some form of mental illness more than likely live near or are inside our social circles. In addition, these statistics indicate that anyone will predictably know some person who is challenged with mental illness.

As daunting as they may seem, we should understand that the numbers above can be impacted in a positive way by healthcare professionals, parents, and those who influence public policy. However, in our community and culture, there is often a judgment of “weakness” about a person who experiences some form of mental illness. For example, our culture influences men that they should not expose any weakness, rather men should be strong. In addition, our culture influences women that they should be all things to all people: a good mother, great wife, and a caring friend.

Besides cultural pressures, the media does not make it easier when violence is portrayed as an element of mental illness when describing people with mental illness. Although this cannot be reiterated frequently enough, most people with mental illness are no more likely to commit violent crimes than a person who has not been diagnosed with mental illness. Since mental illness is a medical and psychological issue, then these misconceptions from culture and the media must be changed through awareness and understanding.

Unfortunately, Susan did follow through with her plans and attempted an overdose of over-the-counter pills. As one can imagine, her vomiting and dizziness led her to a local hospital where caring professionals encouraged her to speak about her sadness without embarrassment or shame.
Prevention and early intervention helps address the stigma when teaching students emotional intelligence and resilience. Since parenting is an acquired skill, perhaps learning about it through a school curriculum may be helpful. Also, more mental health resources, and support in schools, makes it more approachable for children and families to seek help.

Assessment and treatment can be available through access to a mental health therapist or a psychiatrist. Many insurance policies pay for, or reimburse, mental health care and there are programs that offer affordable counseling on a sliding scale. While there are myths regarding the use or overuse of psychiatric medication that contribute to a stigma, the advent of patient-centered treatment plans encourage consumers to ask questions and address their concerns about medication or talk therapy. Consumers have influence and should always clarify their concerns when seeking help or an evaluation.

Keep in mind, when cardiologists recommend physical rehabilitation after heart problems, often the general perspective is to follow the recommendation without question; yet when psychiatric care, a day treatment, or talk therapy is recommended those recommendations are often ignored.
When a loved one appears to have symptoms of some form of mental illness, reach out to them and suggest they seek the care of a qualified professional. Push against the stigma and suggest they get help.

By the way, Susan received further help and now is an advocate for mental illness in her local school and community to help kids with similar struggles seek and receive the help they need.

The numbers:

  • One out of five children experience a mental disorder in a given year.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents ages 12-17.
  • According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
  • The average delay between onset of symptoms and receiving treatment is eight to ten years.
  • In Travis County, approximately 430,000 children, under the age of 18, have or are at risk of having, a mental health disorder.
  • According to the Texas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 22 percent of Travis County adults report poor mental health (higher than the national average.) This suggests that the share of Travis County residents reporting poor mental health appears to have increased in recent years, exceeding rates for the five-county metro area and Texas as a whole.
  • In the most recent study of Travis County published in 2013, 7 percent of adults ages 65 and over reported poor mental health compared to 32 percent of 18-29 year olds, 23 percent of 30-44 year olds, and 17 percent of 44-64 year olds.
  • Texas ranks 49th in the nation for the amount it spends per person for mental health care.

afshankhanAfshan Khan, MD
Dr. Khan has expertise in diagnosing and treating depression, mood problems, anxiety, ADD/ADHD,autism spectrum disorders, and behavioral issues associated with cognitive and developmental delays and other psychiatric illnesses. In addition to skills prescribing psychiatric medication, Dr. Khan is well versed in psychotherapy techniques and incorporates them into her interactions with her patients. She currently works as a Service Director for the Child and Adolescent inpatient unit at Austin Oaks Hospital. Dr. Afshan Khan is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) in Psychiatry with a subspecialty in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Michael S. Bishop, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S, PA
Dr. Michael S. Bishop has practiced marriage and family therapy in the Austin area for over twenty-five years. Dr. Bishop works with children through senior adults while seeing couples, families, and individuals. His years of experience have provided him familiarity and skill at working with couples in transition, distress, conflict, and infidelity. In addition, he works with couples and families in which one member encounters depressive symptoms. He is a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a State Board Approved Supervisor. Dr. Bishop teaches at St. Edward’s University and is an Adjunct Clinical Affiliate with the UT School of Nursing.

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