Destigmatizing Mental Illness

Mental illness is nothing if not common. More than five percent of Americans have a major psychiatric illness, and 20 percent have some degree of mental health difficulty. Nonetheless, the stigma around mental health remains. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous aspects of psychiatric disease. The stigma—by preventing people from seeking treatment, by keeping them from telling their friends, family, or co-workers, by keeping them from seeking accommodation or even understanding—compounds the effects of the illness itself, adding isolation to the burdens patients must bear.

In fact, only about two in five mentally ill people seek treatment, and many of those drop out partway through. In a report by the Carter Center, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter wrote, "one does not work long on mental health issues before recognizing the additional hardships caused by stigma." The stigma, experts say, is self-perpetuating: as people hide their illnesses, the damaging stereotypes of the mentally ill are allowed to take root, thus further discouraging people from coming forward.

For example, the belief is commonly encountered that people with a mental illness are simply seeking attention. This belief is particularly strong when the person claims to have a particular mental illness, and may even have a formal diagnosis, but is not showing the symptoms people expect on the basis of media portrayals. However, people who are displaying classic symptoms may be regarded as mimicking those portrayals, in order to make their claims more convincing.

That is why more and more public figures—such as British actor and comedian Stephen Fry, whose struggles with bipolar disorder led to a mental breakdown in 1995 due to stage fright, during which he fled the country as well as the public eye—are going public with their mental illness stories. Fry has appeared in documentaries on the subject and is involved with a mental health charity in the United Kingdom that is focused on bringing these conditions out into the open.

Indeed, while society isn’t quite there yet, there are hopeful signs, little indicators that the stigma may be starting to lessen. A study in England completed earlier this year found that attitudes toward the mentally ill are improving, thanks in part to the work people such as Fry are doing, with respondents showing a greater understanding of and sympathy for mental illness.

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