Mental health and substance abuse advocacy is a growing movement. Each May, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) declares a week as National Prevention Week. It’s defined as “A week dedicated to bringing an annual health observance dedicated to increasing public awareness of, and action around, mental and/or substance use disorders.” The focus is on preventing suicide, substance abuse, and undue suffering from untreated conditions.
Unfortunately, despite such campaigns and mental health being more “out of the shadows” in recent years, stigma and misunderstanding are alive and well, and contribute to lack of care and, ultimately, undue suffering.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 51.5 million Americans have a diagnosable mental illness (2021), yet fewer than half seek care. Contributing factors include lack of providers and people not understanding that their condition is treatable. However, the stigma of mental illness is quite possibly the most significant contributor. According to trauma psychotherapist Lisa Ferentz (2021), “Our culture still perpetuates the belief that people suffering from mental illnesses are not intelligent, extremely violent, or incapable of making decisions that profoundly impact their lives.”
In 2015, the University of Memphis published four disturbing facts about mental illness perception:
- 4 in 5 think it’s harder to say they have a mental illness than other illnesses.
- 1 in 2 are frightened by people with mental illness.
- “Psycho,” “nuts,” and “crazy” are the most common description of those with mental illness.
- Mental illness ranked as the most stigmatized type of illness.
Ironically, even some treatment facilities contribute to the problem. Despite the push to destigmatize and encourage people to seek treatment, many facilities adopt names devoid of the words “psychological,” “mental,” or “behavioral.” While the intention is to make sure it is a place people feel comfortable entering without stigma, it is a double-edged sword; modeling associated with mental health care is unfavorable.
In 2019, The Austen Riggs Center, a private psychiatric care facility in Stockbridge, MA, published a newsletter devoted to stigma. The most remarkable statement was as follows:
In both entertainment and news media, individuals with mental illness are often inaccurately and disproportionately depicted as dangerous and unpredictable. This has negative repercussions for both those struggling with mental illness and for the public’s understanding of mental illness. The fact is that people mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.