Time to End the Stigma of Mental Illness – by David B. Grinberg

In case you missed it, October 10th was World Mental Health Day. The annual observance is sponsored by the World Health Organization to raise awareness of critically important mental health issues.

Now it’s time for more people around the world to step up and sustain the momentum by uniting in a daily effort to #EndTheStigma.

Fostering open communication, education, transparency, advocacy and outreach — both online and off — are solid strategies to eradicate myths, fears and stereotypes surrounding people with mental illness.

Let’s remember that as public discourse about mental illness increases, the stigma incrementally decreases. That’s why it’s necessary to shine a spotlight on mental health issues, and not just on Mental Health Awareness Day but every day. And not just during National Disability Employment Awareness Month but every month.

Daunting Data

Consider the following statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org):

  • “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.”
  • “Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
  • “Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.”
  • “1.1% of adults in the U.S. live with schizophrenia” and “2.6% of adults in the U.S. live with bipolar disorder.”
  • “6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”
  • “18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.”
  • “Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.”

Ending the Stigma

There’s still a huge public stigma associated with mental illness, even in today’s modern age. Will it ever end?

Perhaps more people will come to terms with the reality that mental illness is similar in a general sense to any other serious illness, such as diabetes, cancer and other medical conditions.

But other illnesses aren’t considered taboo topics in society at large.

Even though mental health support groups and advocacy organizations have grown over the years, the stigma lingers to the detriment of society.  We hear about mental illness in the news, but usually in connection to mass shootings, suicides and related tragedies.

These negative stories serve to reinforce the public myths, fears and stereotypes which are already so prevalent. It’s rare to see a positive story in the news media about people with mental illness. Journalists need to do a better job with explanatory reporting and highlighting success stories.

We unify to observe World Mental Health Day to raise public awareness and observe similar week-long or month-long campaigns. However, most folks then go back to their daily routines and don’t think much about it — unless they are personally affected or know someone who is, like a friend or family member.

How as a society do we come to grips with the vexing issue of mental illness? How can we accept mental illness for what it is and what it is not?

Are the answers too elusive?

EEOC’s Role

Many mental health impairments – such as depression, anxiety and panic disorder — fall under the workplace protections included within Title I of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In addition to other laws enforced, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates, litigates and resolves ADA cases of disability discrimination in the workplace based on mental impairments (in addition to physical impairments).

“It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes firing you,” the EEOC noted in a tweet on World Mental Health Day.

EEOC Assistant Legal Counsel Chris Kuczynski, an expert on disability employment policy, told me in an exclusive interview that employers may have myths and fears regarding safety risks posed by persons with mental conditions.

However, “The safety risks associated with mental disabilities are no greater than the safety risks associated with the population generally,” he said. He added that employer myths and fears about real safety concerns also occur with physical disabilities. Some companies may think, “Oh no, this person is going to hurt themselves if I employed him or her in this job with this physical disability condition.”

Kuczynski also pointed out, “Mental disabilities are as diverse as physical disabilities in terms of how they manifest and how they are treated.” Moreover, the stigma surrounding mental disabilities is related to the fact that they’re usually hidden. “We fear what we can’t see,” said Kuczynski. “The same is true for hidden physical disabilities.”

His advice to employers: “If you can’t see a disability you may not understand it. That’s why it’s so important for employers to get the best and most accurate information possible about the disability you are dealing with.”

Final Thoughts

Mental illness is a harrowing disease which has been badly portrayed by the news media, popular culture and entertainment for decades. But it’s no longer the case that men with white uniforms show up, put the patient in a straight jacket and take them away.

While medical treatments have vastly improved over the decades, the disgrace, humiliation and embarrassment associated with mental illness remains a persistent problem. People still use derogatory terms openly and behind closed doors like “lunatic” and “nutty” and “crazy” — to put it mildly.

The same old myths, fears and stereotypes about mental illness still plague society, from the workplace to every other place.

  • Too many people still suffer in silence.
  • Too many people don’t get treatment.
  • Too many people are not diagnosed.
  • Too much discrimination still exists.

Mental illness is still a taboo topic in the 21st century Information Age.

  • How do we all come together as a society to end the stigma?
  • Is it even possible or just a pipe dream?
  • Has mental illness become an ingrained societal fixture for which those affected cannot escape being labeled, pitied and stigmatized?

These are perplexing questions with no easy answers — otherwise we would have found the answers by now. Perhaps advances in medical technology, biomedical research and breakthroughs in neuroscience will alleviate or cure most mental illness. But until that day arrives, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will continue to suffer in silence.

This situation is neither fair nor reasonable for the 44 million Americans with mental health conditions. Many people with mental illness don’t come forward, meaning the total number reported is even higher.

We all must do more to end the stigma. Everyone can help in a small way by fostering more open communication, education, transparency, advocacy and outreach.

The current situation is simply untenable.

David B. Grinberg

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