Why Is There a Stigma Associated with Mental Health?

The World Health Organization defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his/her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and can make a contribution to his/her community." Healthy functionality for less than perfect people is what it boils down to.

What happens when one, two or a few in the group encounter seemingly insurmountable obstacles toward realizing that level of healthy functionality? Do we shame them into denying their reality?

Mental health is as genuine as any other aspect of a person’s health. When an individual is experiencing thought or behavior patterns that negatively impact their quality of life, it is appropriate to address them, just as any other health concern should be addressed. People with mental illnesses are able to recover, but usually only when the problem is confronted and dealt with directly.

Concern over being stigmatized may be a leading reason why people do not seek out help for issues of mental health. If that is the case, as it indeed seems to be, then perhaps it is time to ask ourselves "why?" After all, some mental health problems are physiological and some are cognitively rooted, but all benefit from treatment.

Even though Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not limited to war veterans, the condition has gained recognition since the nation’s involvement in a series of armed conflicts. For those struggling with PTSD, certain life events have been so intense that the person continues to relive them. It is not a matter of telling the person to simply "get over it." As humans, we inherently recognize the need of a person enduring hardship.

When it comes to mental health and children, opinions on the subject vary greatly. Take ADHD as an example. Some consider prescribing medication for the condition an effort to make cookie-cutter children, with everyone just alike. Others, who have witnessed the benefits, see it as helping a child whose behavior made them an outcast be better able to integrate and find that healthy level of functionality. Concerns about over-diagnosis exist, yet some children are born with neurochemical levels that benefit from adjustment.

Depression is the most common mental health disorder and instances of it are rising across the globe. Many Americans, when polled, say they avoid seeking mental health treatment for depression because they don’t want to take antidepressants. Driven by a lack of confidence in psychiatric remedies, most people prefer to trust the self-healing ability of the human body.

Certainly, a person might exhaust other options before seeking professional care, but the problem is more pronounced than most of us realize. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over a 12-month period, more than 26 percent of Americans may have struggled with mental illness. Greater than 46 percent of people will struggle with depression at least one time in their life.

We don’t ridicule or stigmatize people with genetic/physiological illnesses, so why should it be so with mental health conditions? Left undiagnosed and untreated, mental illness can develop into worse problems. In addition to the toll it may take on interpersonal relationships, unemployment, disability and even suicidal tendencies can result.

Given the gravity of the situation, it is doubly concerning that fear of stigma keeps people from admitting their pain and seeking help to overcome it. We needn’t be a "let it all hang out" culture in order to compassionately respond when others (or we ourselves) find the complexities of life a bit overwhelming.

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