Myths of mental illness

Throughout history, our fears, misinformation caused us to observe people with a mental illness in some rather fascinatingly harmful ways.

By Marsha Wilson

Myths and stereotypes have long fueled the fear and prejudice that keep us from truly being a compassionate and healthy society. And while some will argue that recent years have witnessed a decline in prejudice against people of different races or faiths or sexual orientation, the myths concerning people with a severe mental illness has flourished.

Instantaneous images and information about the daily violence in our country stimulates our fear and furthers our ignorance about people with a severe mental illness. In truth, an article published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2011, reported that “Most people with a severe mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with a severe mental illness.”

This NIMH article quoted a 2005 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, which studied the victimization of adults with a severe mental illness. The article stated that those with severe mental illness are “11 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than the general population.”

History of Misinformation
Each year in the United States there are nearly 35,000 suicides. A person with a mental illness is more likely to harm themselves than to harm someone else. How can a society that views itself as compassionate and rushes to the aid of others across the world, so stigmatize a group of its own citizens to the point that they would rather take their own life, than live with an illness?

Throughout history, our fears and misinformation caused us to observe people with a mental illness in some rather fascinatingly harmful ways. Stemming from our strong religious foundation sprang the belief that people with a mental illness were being punished by God for their sinful actions or thoughts. They needed to be kept away from our families and our neighborhoods for fear that their sins would infiltrate the thoughts and lives of our loved ones. As a result, people were ostracized, shunned, tortured and killed. And while this may seem to be an ancient belief, our country still tends to wonder what a person did wrong to deserve a mental illness.

Moving people onto large state hospitals and farms seemed to be our “compassionate” response to our fears and prejudices. And yet again, these farms and hospitals were far removed from our communities. Our actions, however benevolent in intention, further ostracized and stigmatized people with a severe mental illness. People were forced into a dependency on the system that perpetuated the myth that persons with a mental illness were not capable of contributing to society in any meaningful way.

Our judicial system finally forced the closure of these large institutions, and people were set free back into the cities. The money used to sustain the institutions did not follow people into the community, and people found themselves without the supports and treatment they needed to successfully integrate. Millions of dollars remain in the budgets of these institutions, despite the fact that they are nearly empty. Money that could be used to educate our country about mental illness, enhance access to treatment and assist people in working and living healthy lives in the community, goes unspent.

The victimization of people with a severe mental illness is a greater public health concern than the perpetuation of violence by people with a severe mental illness. Our stereotypes and subsequent stigma legitimize the continued underfunding of mental health services, the lack of access and the reluctance of people to seek treatment.

Mental Illness is Treatable
In the United States, 6 percent of adults (13.2 million people) are affected by severe mental illness. Mental illness is not retribution for our sins. Mental illness is a biochemical imbalance, a brain disorder that impacts a person’s thinking, perceptions and mood. And just as epilepsy, diabetes and many other disorders are treatable, so is mental illness.

Treatment is available for people with a severe mental illness and recovery is possible. Seven Counties Services offers education about mental illness, medication, individualized therapy, Peer Services and supported employment. Early identification of mental illness and improved outreach and access to treatment are crucial. If a person fears the ostracism and stigma of their family and friends, more than they dread their symptoms, then these will always be the biggest barriers to an individual’s recovery.

Marsha Wilson is vice president of adult mental health services for Seven Counties Services Inc.


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