The 2012 Mental Health Month Blog Party is May 16, 2012.  The date seemed auspicious for an inaugural post on a blog about mental health.

May is designated as Mental Health Month to educate the public and raise awareness about mental health conditions and mental wellness.  Most people may not know that in 2009:

  • Nearly 20% of U.S. adults experienced some type of mental illness
  • Approximately 11 million U.S. adults had a serious mental illness
  • More than 25% of adults with a serious mental illness had co-occurring substance dependence or abuse issues
  • Approximately 1 in 8 U.S. adults received some type of mental health treatment (e.g. outpatient, inpatient or prescription medication)

Source: Mental Health, United States, 2010. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2012.

Sadly, many people fail to seek treatment for these disorders because of the stigma associated with having a “mental illness.” It’s often considered a character flaw, a failure of will, or a dramatic bid for attention – a choice.  What’s commonly known as “mental illness” is none of these things.  It is in fact a set of physical disorders of the brain. Yet people around you treat it much more casually than other physical disorders. In part because they tend to believe these disorders are less real.  Part of that is a consequence of  the language we use to describe them, and I’ll discuss that in some detail in another post.

But a general point is how different the reaction is to “mental illnesses”  as opposed to the diseases commonly understood as “physical” illnesses.  If you have epilepsy, chances are your friends will not tell you that if you want to limit your seizures, you need to work at it. But if you have major depression, or bipolar disorder, you’re likely to hear that you need to work harder to be healthy, and that your failure to work at your health is why you aren’t well.  That attitude is an example of stigma, as well as of blaming the patient. Likewise if you have MS, it’s unlikely that anyone will tell you that it’s your choice to have MS, or that you should “get over it” or “get tough”, and expect such an approach to work.  Nor will they tell you they get MS from time to time also, but they (unlike you) get on with their lives in spite of it. It’s quite common, however, to get that response to a “mental illness” – bipolar disorder as an example.

I speak with some authority about this, as I have both of these brain disorders.  Neither is a choice on my part.  Neither can be overcome with willpower, regardless of my strength of will.  I’ve never been judged for having MS, while I’ve often been judged for having bipolar disorder.  More than a few times I’ve been told “well/but, you’re crazy” or “you’re just not tough enough.”  Both conditions are brain disorders. The distinction in attitudes toward them is an example of stigma.