Mental Health Awareness Week: Breaking Stigmas to Encourage Treatment

Across the country and the world, Mental Health Awareness Week events have sought to raise understanding about the broad scope of mental illness and provide hope for those living with psychiatric disorders. Unfortunately, stigmas surrounding mental health still act as significant barriers to treatmentBreaking through these stigmas is essential to help people find the help they need to heal and treatment providers must play a central role in destigmatization.

In Defiance, Ohio, people held candles and signs demanding an end to mental health myths.

In New Zealand, nationwide outdoor yoga classes were held to help people with mental illness get outside and experience the healing power of nature.

At the University of Carolina Upstate, students received free depression screenings and had the opportunity to meet with counselors.

The Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre Hall Gallery in Manitoba displayed the works of 10 artists who use creative expression as part of their recovery from mental illness.

Educational, hopeful, and, yes, defiant, these events were all part of Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual, international event aimed at raising awareness about and ending stigma surrounding mental illness. The variety and scope of participation in many ways speaks to the way our cultural understanding of mental illness has already transformed in recent years; in Cornwall, Ohio, the Mental Health Walk has to move to a new location to accommodate the record number of participants.

“We’ve come incredibly far from just a few years ago when even talking about mental health outside of the clinical and abstract felt revolutionary,” says Anna Borges, who writes about mental illness for Buzzfeed.

You no longer have to dig into niche websites to find regular mental health coverage. Instead of viewing their mental health struggles as shameful secrets, people [are] slowly growing more and more comfortable admitting they aren’t okay, sharing their experiences, and, most importantly, seeking professional help.

But while tremendous strides have indeed been made in the area of mental health awareness, it is too early to declare victory. Sadly, both public and private mental health stigmas persist and must be dismantled in order to remove barriers to treatment and allow people to seek the help they need.

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The Broad Scope of Mental Illness

Mental illnesses are some of the most common medical conditions experienced by people in the United States and virtually everyone’s life is touched in some way by mental illness, whether they realize it or not. Whether it’s a family, friend, colleague, or yourself, mental illness is all around us.

In 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health found:

  • 43.3 million adults experienced a mental health disorder in the past year, representing 17.9% of all American adults.
  • 9.8 million adults experienced a serious mental illness that “substantially interfere[ed] with major life activities, representing 4.0% of all American adults.
  • 44,000 people died by suicide, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death overall and the 2nd leading cause of death amongst those between ages 15 and 34.
  • 4% of adults 18 or older reported having thoughts of suicide. Amongst adults aged 18-25 the number rose to 8.3%

While the number of people who experience mental illness is staggering, modern mental health treatment offers more and better treatment options than ever before, allowing many people with mental illness to achieve relief from symptoms and live healthy, stable lives. Even those struggling with severe disorders, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder can now often find meaningful remission of symptoms with the right care and support. Knowing that treatment is possible is vital to cutting through damaging myths about mental illness and instilling hope in those affected by these conditions.

Stigma As A Barrier to Treatment

Despite the continuous development of more effective treatment, less than half of those currently struggling with mental illness receive mental health services. The numbers are particularly low amongst African Americans and Hispanic Americans, who receive treatment at half the rate of Caucasian Americans, as well as Asian Americans, who receive treatment at only one-third of that rate.

The causes for this low participation in treatment are multiple and include lack of both economic and practical accessibility. However, for many, the biggest barriers to recognition of mental illness and willingness to seek treatment are stigmas such as:

  • People with mental illness are dangerous.
  • People with mental illness are weak.
  • People with mental illness cannot be trusted.
  • People with mental illness cannot get better.
  • People with mental illness are less capable.
  • People with mental illness cannot make good decisions.

While these stereotypes have persisted within our cultural narratives for centuries, they are now perpetuated by media portrayals of people struggling with mental health disorders, such as sensationalistic news stories about violence committed by people with mental health disorders and misleading fictional representations. These stigmas may also flourish in particular cultural communities and minority groups due to complex histories with psychological distress, trauma, public policy, and the medical community itself.

The threat of being associated with damaging stereotypes causes some people to resist understanding their distress as the result of mental illness as well as avoid participation in treatment for fear of both internal and external judgment. For many, identifying and treating their mental illness holds the potential for very real social and professional consequences, keeping them in a state of silence and shame. Others fear that seeking treatment will make them objects of pity or that treatment providers will strip them of their agency, as has historically (and unfortunately) all too often been the case. “The prejudice and discrimination of mental illness is as disabling as the illness itself,” says Patrick W. Corrigan, a psychological scientist at the Institute of Technology. “It undermines people attaining their personal goals and dissuades them from pursuing effective treatment.”

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Breaking Through Stigmas to Encourage Healing

Breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental illness is imperative to helping people understand their own experiences and find the supports they need to restore psychiatric stability. As Corrigan notes, strategies for dismantling public stigmas can include protesting damaging media representations and public policies, supporting education that seeks to correct misinformation, and encouraging positive contact between the general public and people with mental illness. Public stigmas, however, are only part of the equation; we must also seek to break down self-stigmas, the negative understandings people with mental health disorders have of themselves.

Public events such as Mental Health Awareness Week and the continuous work organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness are invaluable to the project of dismantling both public and self-stigmas. However, treatment providers must also work diligently to destigmatize mental illness on both micro and macro levels. This includes participation in research expanding our understanding of mental health disorders and their treatment, providing psychoeducation to clients and their families, and providing a safe, respectful, and non-judgmental environment in which clients act as agents of change in their own lives.

Bridges to Recovery is committed to ending mental health stigma in order to improve the lives of their clients and all those struggling with psychiatric distress. As Dr. Judy Ho, consulting neuropsychologist at Bridges whose research interest includes removing stigmas to improve access to and delivery of care, says:

Bridges to Recovery prides itself on educating clients and families about evidence-based care and aims to de-stigmatize mental illness through their individual approach to working with clients. They show respect to each individual and assure them that emotional and behavioral struggle is more common than we think and there are ways to address these issues effectively. They give every client the attention and respect they deserve and consistently demonstrate through their work that people struggling with psychological symptoms should not be confined or diminished to a label.

Creating a warm, welcoming treatment environment that defies dangerous stereotypes about what psychiatric care is is paramount to encouraging treatment participation. It is also essential to give people the opportunity to learn about their illness and while empowering them to see themselves beyond their illness with the support of expert clinicians and compassionate peers. In doing so, we hope to not only help our clients achieve their treatment goals and create more fulfilling lives, but to serve as a model for what mental health treatment can be when its true potential is unleashed.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.