“These pains that you feel are Messengers. Listen to them. Turn them to sweetness.” - Rumi
Today – May 16, 2012 – is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) “Mental Health Month Blog Day.” The idea behind this day is to increase awareness of the importance of good mental health and the impact of stigmatization on those who struggle with mental illness. We are all impacted by mental health issues, yet it remains an uncomfortable topic for many people to openly discuss. You do not need to become a mental health expert to increase basic understanding of mental health and illness, treat those who may be suffering with empathy and respect, and learn how to actively maintain your own mental health.
While there are many theories and bodies of evidence that point to the variety of ways in which mental disorders develop, the end result is mental and emotional suffering (at varying degrees). Not all psychological disorders are the “same.” Consequently, they are responsibly and effectively addressed with different forms of evidence-based treatments (e.g., a specific type of psychotherapy or psychiatric medication) to alleviate symptoms and regain mental health.
A great deal of psychological suffering can be prevented and/or alleviated by taking an active role in maintaining your own mental health with regular use of self-care strategies. Mindfulness in daily living and meditation have the potential to provide substantial benefits to well-being, physical health, and mental health. A previous post, “15 Benefits of Cultivating Mindfulness,” shed light on some specific benefits of developing mindfulness, based on an article by Harvard Health Publications.
The very use of the word disorder implies that one is somehow out of order or out of balance. Consider the idea of mental wellness along a continuum, as opposed to categorizing people into groups such as “mentally healthy” and “mentally ill.” At the minimum, we have all experienced the lower end of that spectrum – having difficulty falling asleep due to worries, experiencing anxiety before giving a presentation, feeling irritable or moody, etc. It is important to remember that a great deal of diagnosable mental disorders are not “obvious” and many go unrecognized and/or untreated for a lifetime. Part of rising above stigma toward people with mental health issues involves developing compassion toward the very nature of human suffering.
Stigma is considered a mark of disgrace, discredit, and judgment that results in discrimination and exclusion. For people struggling with mental or emotional disturbances, the experience of stigmatization can easily become internalized and result in a profound sense of shame, secrecy, and social isolation. When someone is already experiencing significant internal conflicts, interpersonal difficulties, or severe mental illness, stigmatization by others only serves to intensify suffering. Imagine the potential difference that you can make in the lives of those who are struggling with mental health issues through increasing your own awareness, adopting a mindfully nonjudgmental attitude, and expressing compassion.
Many people who stigmatize and discriminate against individuals struggling with mental health issues lack accurate information about mental and emotional disturbances. It is understandable to feel threatened, defensive, or confused by things which one does not understand, although it is incumbent upon the individual to become informed about basic mental health issues due to the serious harm that can be inflicted as a result of stigmatization.
Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders
Mental health issues are often misunderstood due to myths and stereotypes that become perpetuated in the media and society at large. The continued transmission of misinformation only serves to intensify stigmatization, prolong suffering for those with psychological concerns, and reduce the likelihood for friends and family to provide effective and compassionate support for their struggling loved ones. Increasing your own awareness of mental health issues will enable you to increase empathy, become more mindful of the potentially harmful effects of insensitive comments, and increase your own awareness of any mental or emotional struggles that you may be experiencing.
Myths & Facts about Mental Illness
Reflect on the following myths and facts about mental illness provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
- Myth: People who struggle with mental health issues are hopeless and will never get better.
- Fact: There are many effective treatments and community support systems in place to assist individuals recovering from many commonly diagnosed disorders. A variety of evidence-based psychological treatments have been established that show great promise in the effective treatment of disorders related to: depression, anxiety, bipolar, substance abuse, eating, sleep, personality, hypochondriasis, schizophrenia, and more (Chambless & Ollendick, 2001).
- Myth: Mental illness is simply the result of a weakness of character.
- Fact: Mental disorders arise from a complex interaction between biological, psychological, and social/environmental factors. Some disorders are related to structural differences or chemical imbalances in the brain that may respond well to some psychiatric medications. Other disorders may arise through repeated trauma, abuse or neglect; others still may emerge from social influences (e.g., loss of a loved one or career). It is important to remember that even when mental disorders manifest themselves through no “fault” of the individual, it is empowering for the one who is suffering to take responsibility for themselves and play an active role in the healing process. Blaming or condemning those who are struggling may come from a place of ignorance, self-righteousness, or fear; increasing awareness of mental health issues, expressing compassion, and releasing moral judgments can help you to rise above stigma.
Harmful Effects of Stigma
- Discrimination at work or school
- Trouble finding housing
- Harassment, violence, or bullying
- Deeply held self-doubts about the ability to be successful in meeting challenges
- A sense of hopelessness and helplessness toward improving the situation
If you are currently experiencing concerns about your own mental health, having difficulty managing emotions or thoughts, or are struggling to maintain healthy and harmonious relationships, remember that it takes courage and strength to reach out for help from loved ones or a mental health professional. We all struggle in life from time to time in our own ways. Take the time to mindfully assess your own mental health and emotional well-being, noticing any negative changes in your usual behaviors. Awareness of such changes, a deep desire for the suffering to end, and a willingness to extend your hand out for help is a powerful movement toward reestablishing a healthy connection to a meaningful life.
Increasing awareness of mental health/illness and understanding the impact of stigmatization on those who are suffering may aid in the cultivation of a more informed, just, and compassionate society. Notice the ways in which your attitudes toward those who are struggling with painful thoughts or emotions may begin to shift through becoming more informed. Make the choice to rise above stigma and direct greater mindfulness – awareness, openness, curiosity, acceptance, nonjudgment – toward the wide scale impact of mental health issues on individuals, families, and society.
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Byrne, P. (2000). Stigma of mental illness and ways of preventing it. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 6, 65-72.
Chambless, D. L., & Ollendick, T. H. (2001). Empirically supported psychological interventions: Controversies and evidence. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 685-716.
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