I grew up in the 1970s when the quality of psychiatric care lacked the proper education, resources, and research in behavioral science to treat individuals living with mental illness. Individuals were placed into psychiatric wards or state hospitals for months without further treatment plans upon discharge. Many hospitals imposed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) on individuals with severe mental illness, only for it to wipe out half their memory. Or medical staff administered potent medications, leaving patients catatonic for the rest of the day. In addition, homeless individuals were repeatedly hospitalized just to be forced back out on the streets again.
Individuals were arrested and put into jail for psychotic breakdowns, and family and friends ostracized or persecuted them. How do I know all of this? Because I witnessed my mother experience many of these atrocities.
Psychiatric treatment has increased exponentially in the 21st century - inpatient facilities now provide resources and a continuum of care for patients upon discharge, whether in a rehabilitation clinic, residential treatment center, or a partial hospitalization program (PHP). Many inpatient facilities have peer specialist workers who are individuals with a lived mental health or substance abuse history, or both. Couples and family counseling are now part of the treatment plan. And there is a broader array of psychotropic medications to treat mental health conditions.
Fortunately, mental health awareness has increased due to more extensive studies and resources. Individuals living with mental illness are finally beginning to have more of a voice and advocate for themselves. And the public is starting to become more educated on the subject. However, it hasn't come as far as many might think.
I have experienced the stigma of mental illness firsthand as an individual who lives with it myself. I have also listened to the stories of other individuals as a presenter at inpatient facilities and as a former in-home therapist. Therefore, I would like to point out why many individuals with mental health issues continue to suffer in silence.
Disclosing personal thoughts and feelings to loved ones can feel unsettling and shameful. But what's upsetting about it is we would be more apt to admit if we had something "physical" like cancer. However, many people don't realize that mental illness is physical – it just happens to manifest in the brain.
Mental illness is invisible, meaning we might look great on the outside but suffer on the inside. Therefore, people either don't believe us or can't understand why we are not doing well. It's the same when an individual commits suicide where no one would have expected it because they "looked fine."
We finally have more resources on mental illness than ever before. However, that doesn't mean everyone is well-versed in this subject or necessarily wants to be, but what if your loved one suffered from severe depression? Wouldn't you want to know how to help in that situation?
I look at it this way – when my middle child had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin, I took her to the hospital, spoke with her prescriber, and read up on the diagnosis. Well, it's no different with mental illness, and knowing what signs and symptoms to watch for in your loved one or someone else can be a matter of life and death.
Mental illness is often considered a character flaw or something we ought to control. However, there are contributing factors, and I will mention two here.
We have a factory of chemicals in our brains that depend on them to be in balance to function correctly. But if one has a biochemical imbalance, it essentially means that their brains are misfiring, thus causing a defect in functioning.
If a child is genetically predisposed to a parent or grandparent struggling with mental health issues, they have a chance of inheriting it. Although that doesn't mean they necessarily will, or if they do, they won't be able to power through – just the same as if a parent has heart disease, but the child exercises daily to promote their heart health and longevity. However, we must still consider genetics.
Who wants to be given a not-so-good diagnosis by their doctor? I would assume most wouldn't. Then comes the question, "How can this happen to me?" Well, it's no different with a mental health diagnosis for most of us.
I think everyone wants to live a happy and healthy life, and therefore, it can be devastating to find out you have something you don't want.
We may have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) law to protect the rights of individuals living with a mental health condition, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be well received by colleagues or supervisors, sometimes creating biases.
Disclosing one's mental health to friends or family members might not always go as well as expected, often losing close relationships the minute they do. Therefore, that is why many individuals refrain from telling anyone.
My mother experienced depravity in our family due to their cultural beliefs on mental illness, which was considered shameful, thus hidden under the rug. Therefore, she was ostracized and without support from anyone.
It is interesting to see how some cultures consider mental health issues a taboo and others a spiritual gift. Therefore, culture does play a significant role in how they view mental illness.
Although we might not ever be able to eliminate the stigma of mental illness, that doesn't mean we can't help eradicate it by dispelling the myths that it is irreparable. If anything, mental illness is treatable, and we are more robust and resilient due to the daily battles in the face of adversity.
Mental health awareness has gradually improved over the past decades and will hopefully continue on that trajectory.