Health Column: The stigma surrounding mental illness

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The human brain. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

We have all felt it one way or another. Life seems to throw every challenge and obstacle in our way, and some days we may feel like we’re drowning under the weight of the world. We may distance ourselves from others in attempt to avoid questions like “what’s wrong, shake it off,” or “I just don’t get why you’re so upset all the time.”

Mental illness affects roughly 450 million people world wide, and the majority – 60 percent – do not receive any form of care. It also represents the biggest economic burden of any health issue in the world, costing $2.5 trillion in 2010 – this burden is projected to cost $6 trillion by 2030, with two-thirds of these costs attributed to disability and loss of work.

So if mental illness is so common and so costly why is there so much stigma and misunderstanding surrounding the topic? Mental illness is an invisible disease. It may not affect individuals physically, often making it difficult for others around them to truly comprehend what those individuals are enduring.

Research also suggests a majority of people hold negative stereotypes and prejudices towards those suffering from mental conditions. Many children learn to stigmatize those suffering from mental illness as crazy or weird and these opinions are often carried along with them into adulthood.

Social media and the news do not aid the matter. Many documentaries and media stories fuel the negative perceptions that many individuals hold, and these ideas manifest into social distancing. One of the largest predictors of suicide in individuals with mental illness is social isolation, and those with mental illness often internalize these stigmas. Poverty and life trauma are also highly correlated with predicting the chances of mental illness since many of these individuals lack access to psychotherapy, life saving medications, and support networks.

Mental health education and prevention will likely become a public health priority in the decades to come. Education is needed to bridge the gap between stigma and those with mental illness. Lack of understanding can only be overcome with education.

With its large toll on global economic burden only around 13 percent of funding is dedicated to helping those with mental illness. Mental conditions have not been set as a healthcare priority, but as a growing spotlight gets shone on mental illness the government will eventually need to step in to develop programs and legislation expanding mental illness initiatives.

Instead of stigmatizing it’s important to provide support to those with mental illness. Just because someone may not have a physical illness does not mean that they are not sick and deserve the same empathy. One day I hope individuals can speak about suicide, addiction, depression, anxiety and PTSD without speaking in hushed tones, as if we have something to be ashamed about.  

William Jewell College’s Office Counseling Services (OCS) are free to use for any student. You can reach out to OCS for individual or group therapy at counselingservices@william.jewell.edu or in-person at 216 Yates-Gill College Union.

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