By: Juhi Varshney
A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thoughts and emotions to the extent that it interferes with their ability to complete their regular daily tasks. According to NAMI, one in four American adults and one in five American teenagers experiences a mental health disorder in any given year. Six million Americans live with bipolar disorder, almost fifteen million Americans live with major depression, forty-two million Americans live with an anxiety disorder, and these numbers are only on the rise. With an increasing percentage of the population experiencing the debilitating effects of mental illnesses, society continues to propagate unfair notions and cast ostracizing stigmas that hurt countless Americans each and every day.
Somehow, an association between personal responsibility and mental illness has calcified in social perception. There is this pernicious misconception that depression and anxiety disorders are not legitimate concerns and can be easily avoided by the right personal choices. Unfortunately, living with a mental illness is as much of a choice as suffering from cancer.
Yes, there are scientifically proven factors that can reduce one’s risk but ultimately, the patient could never be held responsible for acquiring the disease. As much as everyone wants it to be in the patient’s control, it simply is not. No one choose to be afflicted with devitalizing depression or uncontrollable anxiety, but those who are become quickly marginalized for their disease. These patients take on an unfair blame and shame from those around them, and this backlash is often enough to prevent people from seeking care. There are countless Americans who know they suffer, but they fear that counseling and psychiatric help could hinder their ability to keep a job, to get a loan, to raise a family. Accepting that they have a disease makes them vulnerable to being labeled and to being reduced to no more than their affliction, a justifiably scary thought. Society hinders the health and the future of countless people by perpetuating the unfair stereotypes of mental health disorders that hurt the prospects of those afflicted and prevent many from getting help.
We all must realize that people are much more than their disease. It is hard enough to live with the symptoms concomitant with a psychiatric disorder let alone the additional hazards introduced by the host of stigmas surrounding these pernicious disorders.It is important that we as a society shift our stifling pressures and expectations away from those who suffer. To be fair, society is too harsh because it does not completely understand the inner workings and repercussions of this specific set of illnesses so as healthcare promoters and providers, it is our responsibility to precipitate change- to promote health for all, and to help those who are in need.
Stigmas hold us all back from fulfilling our collective potential, and the happiness and success of all -especially that of those afflicted with psychiatric disorders- could not be more relevant to medicine’s role in modern society.