The death of beloved actor and comedian, Robin Williams, opened the door for a conversation about mental illness, a conversation about ending the stigma associated with mental illness. Many were shocked to hear that Williams, who seemed the epitome of joy and who excelled at making audiences everywhere double over with laughter, suffered with depression. Millions of people suffer from depression and other disorders of the mind, and lots of people know someone or know of someone who has committed suicide, though it took the death of a celebrity to expand the national conversation about ending the stigma.
Regardless of why the subject is being broached, many people, including those who suffer from mental illness, their family members, and mental health practitioners, are glad to be talking about a subject that tends to be taboo. The conversations, from every arena, suggest different approaches but generally seek the same goal: to end the stigma associated with mental illness so that those who suffer can get the help they need to live normal lives.
Huffington Post blogger, Tom Fielder suggests that changing the way mental illness is marketed could go a long way toward bringing an end to the stigma associated with mental illness. The very fact that headlines and articles about mental illness paint a sad, bleak and despondent picture unconsciously cause even the well meaning to shy away from the negativity portrayed. This negativity could make people reluctant and even fearful about approaching the subject. Others like Jordana Steinberg, daughter of California politician Darrell Steinberg who has spent most of his career advocating for mental health reform, feel that coming forward and sharing their personal stories will help.
Still others like Colleen Kane, development and communications director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) New York chapter, have taken to social media to combat the problem. In a campaign called “I Will Listen” people on social media websites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram vow to be there to listen to and support others with mental illness. The initiative will celebrate one year on Oct. 2, 2014 and to date over 12,000 people have pledged to listen.
Patrick Corrigan, psychologist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and his colleagues have developed the “Coming Out Proud” program, a program designed to provide strategies for individuals with mental illnesses to share their stories with one another. Discrimination and stereotyping can occur when the mentally ill seek employment and housing but people who suffer from mental illness themselves can also contribute to the problem. He suggests that once people are able to share their experiences and no longer fear exposure they feel better about themselves.
Doctor Joseph Bona, Chief Medical Officer at a public behavioral health agency in the metro Atlanta area, explains that people have historically been afraid of what they do not understand. Individuals who suffer from mental illness are often categorized as being unpredictable. Before even seeing and without knowing a client, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, and, to some extent, patients themselves may be braced for an encounter with someone perceived to be troublesome, demanding, and in some cases volatile.
Timothy McClention, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and a mild developmental disability at a young age, feels that the stigma prevents people from seeking treatment. He states, “They always show the negative but when a famous person does something, they put a band aid on it for a couple of weeks but then there is no action, no funding and no follow up.” He tells the story of being put in a police car once because of his appearance and feels that the media contributes to the problem, “Whenever there is a murder or a mass shooting it seems the first thing they say is the person was mentally ill.”
Most people who lose a loved one to mental illness or suicide wonder what they could have done or if they missed the signs. Bona, who notes that the American Psychiatric Association has embraced efforts to end the stigma by shedding light on the subject, cautions that ending the stigma is less about trying to identify the warning signs and more about eliminating the barriers that prevent people from seeking and getting help. It is important to note that though people seek help, there are often obstacles within the very system that has been designed to help. Prejudice and sometimes fear, fear that those pre-concieved notions tend to generate, even within the healthcare arena, can prevent the delivery of quality care.
McClention, a Certified Peer Specialist, employed by the Georgia state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to counsel others who suffer from mental illness, asserts that there are many reasons why people are not willing to get help. He lists the cost of medications, the side effects that may be involved, and what he perceives as limited support from families and communities but the biggest barrier, he says, is being ashamed or afraid to get help.
Robin Williams’ death came as a shock to many but to many more who suffer from mental disorders and their families, mental illness is a reality that they live with every day. Perhaps changing the way we portray mental illness and the language used to describe it may help. It could also be helpful to share stories, not only of the famous, but of ordinary people. Education and shedding light on the reality of mental health, making it less something to fear and more something to support may also help. Finally, increasing the number of people who are willing to learn, to listen and to support, would also go a long way toward ending the stigma associated with mental illness.
By Constance Spruill