As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I have worked in different capacities as a therapist in a traditional outpatient clinic, provided community-based outreach services, and currently direct a treatment team that serves individuals with severe and persistent mental illness.
I am passionate about this profession; however, the most challenging aspect of the field is managing preconceived notions about what mental illnesses are and how people with mental illnesses look and act. An estimated 1 in 4 adults suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem in any given year. Yet, the stigma about receiving mental health services is one of many barriers that prevent individuals from seeking treatment.
Mental illness is one of the most misunderstood health problems in our society. Signs of mental illness are not as clear as physical conditions and are difficult to differentiate from normal responses to life circumstances. For example, when one has a loss in the family, it is a normal response to experience sadness and be less motivated to participate in activities of daily functioning. However, the difference between normal behavior and a legitimate mental illness is how long these symptoms last and how severely they impact one’s daily living. I want to take this opportunity to dispel some preconceived notions and correct public attitudes regarding mental illness.
Common myths include:
• Depression is just a matter of attitude. Unfortunately, depression is commonly viewed as a temporary state of mind that one can easily snap out of. However, it is important to understand that depression is not a choice or a fleeting period of sadness. Clinical depression persists for months and kind words and encouragement are not enough to restore a depressed person’s emotional balance.
Depression impairs a person’s mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and ability to work. It is caused by a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Controlling depression requires learning new skills to challenge negative thoughts so one can think and feel differently.
• Mental illness only affects a few people. Mental illness is common in the United States. In fact, an estimated 1 in 4 adults suffer from some form of mental illness each year, yet only 15 percent of the U.S. adult population seeks treatment. This can be attributed to the lack of knowledge about warning signs, symptoms, and effective treatment. Moreover, stigma about having a mental illness remains a prominent barrier.
• Having a mental illness means that you are crazy. Mental disorders are just as legitimate as physical conditions and can be controlled and treated effectively. The term “crazy” is commonly used to describe individuals with severe mental illnesses who display bizarre behavior and are perceived to be violent and dangerous. The media often focuses on extreme symptoms of mental illnesses and tends to do so out of context.
Similar to the word “crazy” the word “psychotic” is one of the most misunderstood concepts associated with mental health. Psychotic disorders are those that are characterized by complex symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations are experiences that appear to be real, but are created by the mind (i.e., hearing voices and seeing things that are not there). On the other hand, delusions are false beliefs that don’t change when person is presented with the facts. Schizophrenia is an example of a psychotic disorder.
I realize that changing public perceptions is a challenging task. It requires an open mind and begins with awareness, education, and understanding. On another level, stigma not only impacts the identity and well being of those suffering, but it has a significant effect on policies that govern funding and access to mental health care. Stigma interferes with seeing people with mental illness as competent individuals with ambitions and goals.
Consequently, changing public attitudes must start somewhere. It is for this reason that I am so passionate about unveiling the truth around mental illness — the invisible struggle.
Aleesha Young is a licensed professional counselor.
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