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Stigma: Building Awareness And Understanding About Mental Illness

By Arthur Buchanan

Mental illness can strike anyone! It knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or color. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are affected by one or more mental disorders.

Medical science has made incredible progress over the last century in helping us understand, curing and eliminating the causes of many diseases including mental illnesses. However, while doctors continue to solve some of the mysteries of the brain, many of its functions remain a puzzle.

Even at the leading research centers, no one fully understands how the brain works or why it malfunctions. However, researchers have determined that many mental illnesses are probably the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. These imbalances may be inherited, or may develop because of excessive stress or substance abuse.

It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all of our other organs, is vulnerable to disease. People with mental illnesses often exhibit many types of behaviors such as extreme sadness and irritability, and in more severe cases, they may also suffer from hallucinations and total withdrawal. Instead of receiving compassion and acceptance, people with mental illnesses may experience hostility, discrimination, and stigma.

Why does stigma still exist?

Unfortunately, the media is responsible for many of the misconceptions which persist about people with mental illnesses. Newspapers, in particular, often stress a history of mental illness in the backgrounds of people who commit crimes of violence.

Newspapers, in particular, often stress a history of mental illness in the backgrounds of people who commit crimes of violence. Television news programs frequently sensationalize crimes where persons with mental illnesses are involved.

Comedians make fun of people with mental illnesses, using their disabilities as a source of humor. Also, national advertisers use stigmatizing images as promotional gimmicks to sell products.

Ironically, the media also offers our best hope for eradicating stigma because of its power to educate and influence public opinion.

What Is A Mental Illness?

A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking, perception and behavior. If these disturbances significantly impair a person's ability to cope with life's ordinary demands and routines, then he or she should immediately seek proper treatment with a mental health professional. With the proper care and treatment, a person can recover and resume normal activities.

Many mental illnesses are believed to have biological causes, just like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, but some mental disorders are caused by a person's environment and experiences.

The five major categories of mental illness:

"Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. The three main types are: phobias, panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. People who suffer from phobias experience extreme fear or dread from a particular object or situation.

Panic disorders involve sudden, intense feelings of terror for no apparent reason and symptoms similar to a heart attack. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder try to cope with anxiety by repeating words or phrases or engaging in repetitive, ritualistic behavior such as constant hand washing.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder (or manic depression) symptoms may include mood swings such as extreme sadness or elation, sleep and eating disturbances, and changes in activity and energy levels. Suicide may be a risk with these disorders.

"Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a serious disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. Schizophrenia is believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain that produce a variety of symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, withdrawal, incoherent speech and impaired reasoning.

"Dementias

This group of disorders includes diseases like Alzheimer's which leads to loss of mental functions, including memory loss and a decline in intellectual and physical skills.

"Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia involves serious, potentially life-threatening illnesses. People with these disorders have a preoccupation with food and an irrational fear of being fat. Anorexia is self-starvation while bulimia involves cycles of bingeing (consuming large quantities of food) and purging (self-inducing vomiting or abusing laxatives). Behavior may also include excessive exercise.

Common Misconceptions About Mental Illness

Myth: "Young people and children don't suffer from mental health problems."

Fact: It is estimated that more than 6 million young people in America may suffer from a mental health disorder that severely disrupts their ability to function at home, in school, or in their community.

Myth: "People who need psychiatric care should be locked away in institutions."

Fact: Today, most people can lead productive lives within their communities thanks to a variety of supports, programs, and/or medications.

Myth: "A person who has had a mental illness can never be normal."

Fact: People with mental illnesses can recover and resume normal activities. For example, Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes", who has clinical depression, has received treatment and today leads an enriched and accomplished life.

Myth: "Mentally ill persons are dangerous."

Fact: The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. In the cases when violence does occur, the incidence typically results from the same reasons as with the general public such as feeling threatened or excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs.

Myth: "People with mental illnesses can work low-level jobs but aren't suited for really important or responsible positions."

Fact: People with mental illnesses, like everyone else, have the potential to work at any level depending on their own abilities, experience and motivation.

How You Can Combat stigma:

1 Share your experience with mental illness. Your story can convey to others that having a mental illness is nothing to be embarrassed about.

2 Help people with mental illness reenter society. Support their efforts to obtain housing and jobs.

3 Respond to false statements about mental illness or people with mental illnesses. Many people have wrong and damaging ideas on the subject. Accurate facts and information may help change both their ideas and actions.

Mental Illness in the Family

Recognizing the Warning Signs & How to Cope

Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and "happen to someone else." In fact, mental disorders are common and widespread. An estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder in a given year.

Most families are not prepared to cope with learning their loved one has a mental illness. It can be physically and emotionally trying, and can make us feel vulnerable to the opinions and judgments of others.

If you think you or someone you know may have a mental or emotional problem, it is important to remember there is hope and help.

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life's ordinary demands and routines.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawl.

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

How to cope day-to-day

Accept your feelings

Despite the different symptoms and types of mental illnesses, many families who have a loved one with mental illness, share similar experiences. You may find yourself denying the warning signs, worrying what other people will think because of the stigma, or wondering what caused your loved one to become ill. Accept that these feelings are normal and common among families going through similar situations. Find out all you can about your loved one's illness by reading and talking with mental health professionals. Share what you have learned with others.

Handling unusual behavior

The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioral. Individuals may be extremely quiet or withdrawn. Conversely, he or she may burst into tears or have outbursts of anger. Even after treatment has started, individuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviors.

When in public, these behaviors can be disruptive and difficult to accept.

The next time you and your family member visit your doctor or mental health professional, discuss these behaviors and develop a strategy for coping.

Establishing a support network

Whenever possible, seek support from friends and family members. If you feel you cannot discuss your situation with friends or other family members, find a self-help or support group. These groups provide an opportunity for you to talk to other people who are experiencing the same type of problems. They can listen and offer valuable advice.

Seeking counseling

Therapy can be beneficial for both the individual with mental illness and other family members. A mental health professional can suggest ways to cope and better understand your loved one's illness.

When looking for a therapist, be patient and talk to a few professionals so you can choose the person that is right for you and your family. It may take time until you are comfortable, but in the long run you will be glad you sought help.

Taking time out

It is common for the person with the mental illness to become the focus of family life. When this happens, other members of the family may feel ignored or resentful. Some may find it difficult to pursue their own interests.

If you are the caregiver, you need some time for yourself. Schedule time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry. If you schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one. Only when you are physically and emotionally healthy can you help others.

"Many families who have a loved one with mental illness share similar experiences"

It is important to remember that there is hope for recovery, and that with treatment many people with mental illness return to a productive and fulfilling life.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

To learn more about symptoms that are specific to a particular mental illness, refer to the NMHA brochure on that illness. The following are signs that your loved one may want to speak to a medical or mental health professional.

In adults:

confused thinking

prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)

feelings of extreme highs and lows

excessive fears, worries and anxieties

social withdrawal

dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits

strong feelings of anger

delusions or hallucinations

growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities

suicidal thoughts

denial of obvious problems

numerous unexplained physical ailments substance abuse

In older children and pre-adolescents:

substance abuse inability to cope with problems and daily activities

change in sleeping and/or eating habits

excessive complaints of physical ailments

defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism

intense fear of weight gain

prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death

frequent outbursts of anger

In younger children:

changes in school performance

poor grades despite strong efforts

excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)

hyperactivity

persistent nightmares

persistent disobedience or aggression frequent temper tantrums

About The Author

Listen to Arthur Buchanan on the Mike Litman Show!


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