November 29, 2010

Anxiety and Panic disorders are problems. Psychology and medical science have both confirmed this. We have mental health services in place to treat them. So, why is it that they are both considered less serious or less important than any other disorder or disease of the body? Why does mental health still carry such a stigma, against all logic and reason, and what does that mean for those with mental disorders?

Unfortunately, what it means is that an estimated less than 30% of all people with a diagnosable mental disorder ever actually seek treatment. The reasons for this vary. Some just never receive the resources or education needed for them to know that they actually are suffering from a specific condition that it is treatable. More often, though, the problem lies within society and common misconceptions about mental health and those with mental disorders.

Though it would be erroneous to say that we haven’t made progress in public awareness and decreasing stigma about mental health, it would be equally wrong to state that we are now able to rest on our laurels and be satisfied with only what we have accomplished. Too many still use words like “weak” and “lazy” to refer to people who struggle with mental disorders. Aside from an alarming lack of empathy, these judgments come in part from mass media depictions of mental health, in both fiction and news. This probably isn’t even done consciously; it’s likely more a product of the idea that bad news in all things is more entertaining and gripping than good news. Awareness campaigns geared toward content creators for mass media, then, are equally important as they are for the public.

The main concern that this stigma creates is that those who need help will not seek it, for fear of being thought of as weak, useless, or crazy by the rest of society. With all of the media focusing on the negative, it’s easy to see how this can have a large impact on someone thinking about looking for help. People are coming around and realizing the error of their previous thinking, and awareness campaigns are a big part of that. The term “raising awareness,” in and of itself, has its own stigma as something that is ultimately ineffectual and pointless. Raising awareness has a power of its own that has a ripple effect, though, and it should not be ignored. If even one person’s mind is changed by an awareness campaign, that person can be a vector, spreading knowledge to people around them who might also have misconceptions.

Stigma remains a large problem, and even though the problem is ingrained in society, it is a foe that can, in time, be defeated. If you’re suffering from symptoms of a mental health disorder, please fight the stigma and seek treatment, for yourself and your loved ones. You don’t have to go it alone. If you aren’t, think about participating in an awareness campaign near you, and join the fight to spread education about mental health. Check out NAMI and NIMH for more information about events near you.