We have seen how mental illness has been portrayed by the media: that anyone with a mental illness is dangerous. Certainly, if you or someone you know has a mental illness, you know that this is simply not true. Kim discusses how mental illness is no different than an illness like Diabetes and that denial could be life-threatening. Here, she lists different ways we can go about ending the mental illness stigma.
Dangers of Denial – the Reality of Mental Illness Stigma & How we Can Help Change This
By: Kim Openo, LAPC, NCC
Amanda Bynes, actress who grew up in the spotlight on Nickelodeon, was recently hospitalized for a “breakdown”. However, her mother denies that her daughter has any type of mental instability and claims that marijuana is the cause of her daughter’s odd & unusual behaviors. Her lawyers stated also recently in a press conference that she was completely off medications so her family could “prove to the public” that Ms. Bynes did not suffer from any mental illness.
As a mental health professional working in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta, Georgia, I have seen issues that range from personal growth to schizophrenia. Thankfully, it is rare that a client comes to me denying that there is a problem at all. While I applaud the Bynes family for hospitalizing Amanda when she needed help, it is strange to me why it is acceptable for the family to say that Amanda has had substance abuse issues causing her to act erratically; but the family is also emphatically and defensively denying that she has any type of mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. This type of attitude toward mental illness is why people are afraid to get help when they need it – they are truly afraid they will be stigmatized as “crazy” if they do what is needed with counseling and/or medication to live the fullest life possible. Simply put, no matter the reason, Amanda needed help and she was lucky that she had the best available care.
During college I dated a man who had Type I diabetes, and he was very open about filling his syringes with insulin at the dining hall & giving himself the necessary dosage of insulin for a meal. He was open and honest about his disease knowing that to be in denial would cost him his life. This is the way that society should start to look at mental illnesses as well, no matter how minor. Let’s say that a young lady does have bipolar disorder causing her to act dangerously, and due to family or self pressures she remains free of prescription medication or proper psychotherapy assistance. It is a strong possibility that she could do something drastic during a manic phase like hurting herself or others by drinking & driving. Further, it is very common for those with serious mental illness that are not treated to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. On the flip side of the bipolar coin, this individual could become so depressed that suicide seems her only rational answer to ending the pain and then takes her life. All of this could be prevented except for the fear society holds regarding those with mental illness. But, in truth how is her illness ANY different than diabetes? What kinds of things can we do to change this unhealthy perception of mental health?
- Stop with judgments of peoples’ behaviors. Only took often is someone changes their mind, a peer would be quick to laugh and call them “bipolar”. Or sometimes the insult of “retard” is thrown around too casually. Would we do the same with physical illness? Joking about cancer is cruel and uncalled for. We should feel the same about schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
- If you know someone with a mental illness, treat them the same as you would any other friend. They are no different than any other friend, except for the fact that they manage an illness.
- Do not tell the person with mental illness that prayer or a simple positive attitude can change their illness. Would you assume that either of these things could change a physical illness such as insulin-dependent diabetes?
- Lastly, simply be accepting and compassionate. Be there when things are good and bad without judgment. This is the hardest thing to do, but also the most rewarding. Your friendship will last a lifetime with this type of intimacy and trust.
Every type of illness requires personal responsibility for self-care, medication, and education from qualified individuals on how to take care of oneself with proper management and a healthy life. Diabetes is a disease that happens to be in the pancreas causing problems with insulin, and bipolar disorder happens to be in the brain causing issues with certain neurotransmitters. Why do we look at one more different than the other? How can you change your personal actions to make this perception different?