The Deception of “Mental Illness”
The term “mental illness” is offensive and disrespectful, although not untrue. Mental health consumers really are ill.
It’s not something that can be fixed with a “cheer up” and a pat on the back, it’s a sickness that needs actual treatment.
However, mental illness has had a glaring stigma surrounding it since Biblical times.
“Back then the mentally ill were regarded as demon-possessed,” said Dale Wisely, a clinical psychologist of 24 years in the Birmingham area.
A stigma is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a mark of shame or discredit.”
It shouldn’t be easy to mark someone with an illness through no fault of their own as shameful, but human behavior shows it happens every day.
What is hard for people who don’t suffer from a mental illness to understand is it’s just like any other malady. It is a disease.
Emily Tucker, a private practitioner, licensed professional counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor in the mental health field, thinks of the stigma of mental illness in much more simple terms.
“A person cannot simply think their way out of a depression. We would not expect a diabetic to push through an insulin crisis, or a person with high blood pressure to will it away,” said Tucker.
Susan Hart, the director of University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Counseling and Wellness Center, makes the same point.
“Mental illness is a brain illness. Sometimes it’s temporary and other times it is a lifelong struggle. When our brain gets sick it’s a mental illness.”
It isn’t easy to have a conversation with someone who wants to end their life, who just got divorced or lived through a sexual assault. Although the physical damage may not be there, there is damage below the surface.
“I believe the more severe the illness, the less we understand as a whole. We also often avoid uncomfortable discussions such as asking someone if they are feeling suicidal when we see warning signs.”
Tucker advocates that the best thing to do in that case is easy: talk to them.
“It’s not that people don’t care, sometimes we are afraid we will say the wrong thing, so we say nothing. Other than saying something intentionally cruel or hurtful, there is no wrong thing we can say. The interest and caring shown by asking someone if they are doing alright can really go a long way.”
Mental illness shouldn’t be a scary thing. Often, fear is caused by lack of factual knowledge.
Facts point to one conclusion: mental health consumers rarely, if ever, become physically violent.
Dr. Paul Mullen, a licensed clinical psychologist in Illinois, conducted a study in 2006 and concluded that of the 1 in 100 people who have schizophrenia, only 0.1% are sometimes violent.
And if the individual is in treatment, then the odds are almost the same as for the general population.
Why should a such misguided ideas even exist about mental illness? Hart blames something called social programming.
“Most of us learn very early in life that being beautiful, smart, popular and successful are attractive qualities. Social programming sets us up for both a positive and negative bias about others. This of course motivates us to seek healthy, beautiful people and to shun and exclude those who seem defective or inferior. Mental illness often alters one’s capacity for beauty, efficacy, and success,” said Hart.
The issue turns out to be just lack of understanding. What can be done to remedy the problem? Research. Kindness and a little bit of character can go a long way.
Respect is also another important thing to think about when referring to mental health consumers.
“I would love to see us find new terms that are less associated with stigma,” said Tucker. “I rarely use that term (mental illness) in my practice.”
To learn more preferable terms for mental illness, please visit http://www.mindfreedom.org/kb/mental-health-abuse/psychiatric-labels/not-mentally-ill.