"Tell people that you’re having a hard time with arthritis or cancer and you’re likely to get sympathy and support. But mention that you’re struggling with mental illness and you may be met with uncomfortable silence or judgmental stares…you may even wind up losing face or losing friends. That’s really sad. Yet the lamentable truth is that, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, many misguided people still view depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction and other mental health problems as a sign of a character defect or moral failing. For instance, about 50% of Americans consider depression to be a personal weakness. So it’s no wonder that many people who live with such stigmatized disorders often keep that information to themselves. But is staying silent the best policy? Not necessarily—particularly if silence exacerbates a sense of isolation or shame or prevents people from getting needed treatment.
It’s important to know when to speak out to friends and acquaintances, according to Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, a professor of sociology at Indiana University and director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. Dr. Pescosolido has done extensive research on stigma and other social issues surrounding illness. Here are her suggestions for dealing with the ignorant forces that perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental illness.
FACE YOUR OWN PREJUDICES
First, take a good, honest look at yourself—and ask yourself whether you might share society’s biases about mental illness. If you do, you may be trying to ignore your own symptoms—but that can be not only demoralizing but also dangerous if it keeps you from getting the treatment you need. What to do…
Find the courage to confide in your doctor. Yes, it can be embarrassing to say, “I’m having trouble controlling my drinking” or “Sometimes I feel so depressed that I can’t even get out of bed.” Remind yourself that physicians are trained to help patients without passing judgment. If your doctor does make you feel uncomfortable after you describe your symptoms and concerns, request a referral to a specialist or find yourself a more compassionate physician with whom you can openly discuss your condition and your treatment options.
Raise your own awareness about stigma. In a new study published in The Lancet, researchers looked at genetic data from about 60,000 people around the world and discovered that the same genetic “glitches” can eventually evolve, if prompted by other genetic or environmental factors, into one of five different psychiatric illnesses—autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Ask yourself: Considering that so many mental disorders may originate from the same genetic root, why is it that people with ADHD typically can speak so freely and even make jokes about their disorder, while those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or addiction often feel ashamed or even guilty?" (BottomLineInc, 2013)
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