Battling Stigma in Mental Health to Access Treatment

By John Shin, MD

Psychiatric disorders have a substantial impact in the United States. Up to 25% of all Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder. Up to half of all mental health disorders start before 14 years of age and three quarters by 24 years of age. It places a heavy burden on US society. Serious mental illness cost Americans $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. Adults in the US living with serious mental illness die on an average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions. Yet, the stigma of mental illness prevents many Americans from getting richly deserved interventions to live fuller and more productive lives.

Stigma of mental health disorders is a key barrier to receiving treatment. Mental illness is wrongly believed to be due to weakness or defects in character, causing shame to the person and their family.  A mentally ill person is thought to be “crazy”, “loco”, lazy or impure in spirit; which is not even remotely close to reality. A person with a psychiatric illness is suffering from a disease which robs the person of the wholeness of his body, mind and spirit. It is like being burned alive without the scars to prove it. Just because one does not bleed, does not make the suffering any less. 

Psychiatric disorders are readily treatable and manageable, and successful treatment will lead to a stronger and more resilient person.  Everyone has obstacles to life, but for someone with a mental illness, life is especially bleak and complex. It is like being half a person, not fully using all of one’s abilities and talents.  It is like a deaf person not using their hearing aids. The amazing thing is that services are available to help people with mental illness reach their full potential. 

The impact on mental health of one’s family can be devastating. Parents, friends, children and spouses are all negatively affected by a loved one’s struggle with mental illness. Conversely, having a father or mother who is fully engaged at work, home and personal life can have a profound positive impact on those around them. The once irritable father can now be available and play with his children, be supportive of his spouse, be a good friend and be a needed asset at work. The anxious mother can be an attentive parent, engaged friend, supportive spouse and a positive role model at work. All this is possible with effective mental health treatment. 

What can be done? Recognizing that there is something wrong, possibly the signs and symptoms of psychiatric illness, and getting help is the first step. Then accepting and receiving the assessment and appropriate mental health services is next. This requires setting aside the stigma and allowing that psychiatric intervention is as valid and as necessary as other medical interventions. Being able to be the best person you can be, via treatment, will help your drive for overall wellness and optimal strength.  Overcoming the stigma is worth it. The journey may be long and arduous, but the reward at the end is more than worth the effort. A trip of ten thousand miles begins with just one step. 

Be brave and courageous for yourself and your loved ones and begin that journey if you wonder if your life is being impaired by issues of a mental disorder.