Friday 5: Five Steps to Standing Up to the Stigma of Mental Illness

Recently, a shooting in the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington D.C. took the media’s center stage. Gripping the country in the whirlwind of debate about gun control, that is, until the words “mentally ill” and “hearing voices” were sprinkled on top of this story.  Mostly, mental illness is simply an extra fact that seems to add nothing more than the horror of the tragedy and the stigma towards reality that like any other organ in the body the brain can get sick.  Stigma is a major hurdle to families dealing with mental illness as it snatches the dignity and respect of an individual, leaving only fear of being judged.  That fear is perhaps the most significant hurdle to voluntary treatment, a blessing compared to the trauma of involuntary treatment.  How individuals deal with that stigma will dictate so much more than debates, policies, and laws. It will shape the very lives of the marginalized and those who are invisible-to-society by helping to slowly eliminate one of the main reasons (stigma) they might not seek treatment, improve discussions, and an understanding of mental illness in society.  A reform of the way mental illness is perceived would pave the way to better access to health and legal services to those suffering from it.

According to the World Health Organization, 1 in every 4 people, or 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental illness and as a result battle the stigma.  Start standing up to the stigma of mental illness by educating yourself with these Friday 5 steps:

nami1. Many organizations are excellent places to begin taking one’s questions.  Once such organization, founded in 1979, is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is dedicated to support, education, awareness, advocacy and research.  With local chapters throughout the country, NAMI provides several free educational programs and support groups for family and friends of people who suffer from mental illness as well as the consumers themselves.  Understanding the many other barriers faced by this quarter of the population, NAMI also provides guidance and health and legal resources since many of those who suffer from mental illness also experience job loss, homelessness, inadequate access to treatment, and overall marginalization to a much greater extent than the general population. Educating one’s self and reaching out for help are the most crucial steps towards standing up to the stigma and helping a loved one.

ted2. As you read, research, discuss, try not to get lost in the terminology and the diagnosis.  Remember that those who suffer from mental illness are, no matter what, still people who can lead fulfilling lives.  Despite the ultimate challenge of accepting and managing one’s condition, many people, maybe even people you know, lead successful, and inspiring, lives.  One such example is Elyn Saks, a distinguished law scholar and professor, and author of many books.  Others whom you may have heard of include Abraham Lincoln, Eugene O’Neill, Jimmy Piersall, Michelangelo, and more.  Some of the world’s most current inspiring and innovative minds face these challenges.  Check out the amazing TED Talk speakers who have shared their stories and passions with the world. Interested in learning more about the brain and the world’s variety of minds, here’s more!

word3. Now, I am going to make the humble attempt to name just a few of many of the amazing books that attempt to capture the reality of what it means to have a mental illness.  Law scholar, professor, motivating speaker, Elyn Saks is the author of eye-opening books, one of which is, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. This memoir contains a vivid and honest description of Saks’ life, which is relatable for many individuals, and eye-opening for those of us who have yet to realize.  She has also authored the fascinating book, Refusing Care: Forced Treatment and the Rights of the Mentally Ill.  Another interesting work to consider is Dr. John Gartner’s The Hypomanic Edge, a book that discusses the power of being “just manic enough.”

a beautiful mind4. The power of reading, discussing, and listening is unmistakable, but the power of film cannot be forgotten.  However, one must be cognizant of any production’s portrayal of people with mental illness and mental disorders and what messages it may send the public about mental illness.  One of the many great films about mental illness is A Beautiful Mind, the story of a great mathematician whose progress is challenged by the symptoms of his illness.  A beautiful film that provides some insight on the suffering endured by the friends and family of a suffering relative is Canvas, a film about how a woman suffering from schizophrenia, and how she, her son, and her husband cope and try to understand each other’s suffering.  Another film about the wonders of the autistic mind is called Temple Grandin and is based on a true-story.  For more films, check out NAMI’s top 10 list.

you5. Now that you’ve begun educating yourself, it’s time to take the next step in your education: sharing.  Share what you know, and that knowledge will grow.  Let knowledge grow, and let the results show. Teaching is one of the most effective tools for learning, even if you are the teacher.  The power of this new knowledge and understanding allows you to be and inform others how to be respectful with regards to mental illness, avoid discrimination in school and workplaces, provide more adequate professional development opportunities, be an advocate in the community, and direct others in need of help to the right resources.