Sunday, 16 August 2009

The stigma of mental illness

Sincere thanks again to Ysabeth Wordsmith for her extensive comments on he stigma of mental illness. At the end of her comments Ysabeth writes:
"Because ... when your mind is bleeding to death, most people can't see that kind of blood."
She explains as follows:
"...not everyone has the experience of mental complaints. That makes it harder to understand and sympathize what someone else is going through. It is *easier and simpler* to assume the person is just undisciplined and should pull themselves together. They don't recognize the severity of the problem.
I think this is a very obvious point which I simply missed. In stark terms, physical illness is much easier recognised, it is also something most of us can empathise with - unlike mental illness which for many is unknown territory and full of the old cliches. Yes, it is much "easier and simpler" to make false assumptions a bit like all the misinformed though well-intentioned advise, for example, for someone who is suffering from severe depression. "Shake it off, think positively, stop moaning". This entirely misses the point that the actual inability to do such things is, de facto, a part of the illness. Why in society today is this so difficult for most people to understand?

1 comment:

  1. What you don't realise is that much of what we know of mental illness has only been acquired in the last 20 years. Mental illness was something you didn't want people to know about your family. A friend of mine has a great uncle who no one ever talks about. When his father developed schizophrenia, they came to recognise that the uncle was probably schizophrenic as well. Even his father was mostly exiled from his own family, though his mother and a couple siblings still keep in touch. Once upon a time we'd just lock up anyone whose illness was bad enough that people noticed. So is it really any wonder that people would try to hide their unusual aspects of themselves and even today refuse to seek treatment or assistance from a physician? Or is it really a shock that so many try to self-medicate through substances such as alcohol or illegal drugs just in order to deal with daily life?

    It's also a problem when the symptoms of an illness show up differently in the different genders. For example, women with depression will tell their doctor of emotional complaints, whereas men with depression will tell their doctor of physical complaints. As a result, men will often be inspected for heart disease or other physical ailments, when depression is the actual problem.

    Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult to understand why they are "illnesses" when these experiences and behaviours are otherwise normal elements of human existence. Depression can occur during or after a woman's pregnancy or after the loss of a loved one. Mania can seem like someone who just has a lot of energy. ADHD can look only like normal hyperactivity or, at older ages, a lack of mental discipline. Schizophrenia (as in the spectrum) is easily concealed within the scope of religion where hearing the voice of God or seeing visions of angels or spirits would not be considered abnormal. Of course schizophrenia has the additional problem of being confused with Multiple-Personality Disorder (MPD), which is evident in the colloquial use of the word "schizophrenic." Social phobia can be labelled as "shyness" or "introverted" and not seen as problematic. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be viewed only as worrying too much. Et cetera.

    The ONLY difference between when these experiences are normal and when they are not, are when they negatively impact ones ability to function normally in society. With the "disorders" themselves being so complex, and our enlightenment so recent, it is far from surprising that these continue to be so misunderstood.