Ending the Mental Illness Stigma

By Karyn O’Brien, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and Senior Director of Behavioral Health Services, Novant Health UVA Health System

Physicals, teeth cleanings, OB/GYN visits and mammograms, dermatologist appointments, vision checks, colonoscopies and hair cuts. When it comes to maintaining our physical health and appearance, many of us pencil in these appointments weeks, months or even a year in advance.

But what about mental and emotional health? Why are we so conscientious about these other appointments, but shy away from or even outright avoid getting our mental and emotional health evaluated? The fact that it isn’t “surface level,” or something we can be reminded of just by looking in the mirror, doesn’t make mental health any less important to maintain. Taking a deep dive into what’s happening inside our heads and emotions, identifying any mental health concerns is as critical to our overall well being as regularly checking for lumps or measuring blood pressure.

There are plenty of proactive health care and wellness recommendations that support our physical health, but nothing for emotional and mental health, and you have to wonder why that is. After all, our physical health and mental health have strong interdependent and interlinked relationships with each other. Why haven’t we been hardwired to think about our mental and emotional health as having the same value and importance as the rest of our physical health?

Rates of Mental Illness

Mental illness is a leading cause of disability in the U.S., with about 20 percent of Americans — approximately 43.8 million people — experiencing mental illness in a given year.

Current research shows that mental illness and substance misuse are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors, and can affect anyone regardless of culture, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, religion, financial or socioeconomic status, education or profession.

It seems clear that we should take proactive measures on behalf of our mental and emotional health. Yet somehow, our physical health still takes priority while mental health is often put on the back burner.  

The Stigma

Unfortunately, the disconnection of mental health from the rest of physical health has had serious ramifications, including the damaging stereotypes and stigma surrounding individuals who experience mental health or addiction issues.

The stereotypical view of mentally-ill people as disheveled and roaming the streets while drinking from brown paper bags, using drugs in dark alleyways or talking to themselves, is in actuality far from the truth. The same is true of less-extreme stereotypes such as laziness, carelessness and weakness. The most outwardly strong, put-together people can be battling serious mental health disorders or addictions that no one knows about. In truth, there is no outward appearance that defines mental illness.

There is also the stigma that people coping with mental illness are in some way morally flawed — that there is something corrupt about their upbringing, lifestyle or a choice they’ve made that makes them less capable of living productive, meaningful, happy lives. This stigma blames an individual for chemical reactions within the body that they have no control over.

“Mental illness” has essentially become synonymous with “crazy,” “incapable,” “worthless” and a slew of other negative connotations.


Getting Help

With such negative associations surrounding mental illness, it’s no wonder that people aren’t proactive about discussing their mental and emotional health. But that can be changed.

To start, at Novant Health UVA Health System we encourage speaking with your existing health care providers about any feelings of anxiety, depression, anger or sadness. We also stress the importance of being honest about drug and alcohol use.

There’s a strong correlation between addiction and mental health. By withholding information about the amount or frequency of use, patients inhibit their health care provider’s ability to accurately diagnose or recommend necessary treatments for addiction recovery and for underlying mental illnesses.

We also encourage keeping an open mind to your own emotions, as well as the emotions of those around you.

There’s no reason for anyone with a mental health condition to experience unnecessary suffering because society says to ‘toughen up’ and not express feelings that are concerning to them. Talking to someone — be it a friend, family member, doctor or therapist — is the first step toward a happy, healthy life and ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.

For information about Novant Health UVA Health System’s behavioral health services, please visit novanthealthuva.org/services/behavioral-health.aspx, and visit the Mental Health Resources section at www.PiedmontLifestyles.com.

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