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Mental Health Overview

Mental HealthMental illness can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, or income. Each year, roughly one in four Americans will be affected by some form of mental illness. When treated, rates of recovery are high. However, fewer than half of those with diagnosable mental illnesses will seek treatment.

Many reasons exist for not seeking treatment:

1. Mental illness may not be recognized in the first place.

2. There may be an incorrect belief that the illness cannot be treated.

3. The negative label or stigma linked to mental illness may prevent people from seeking treatment.

Stigma exists when people do not fully understand mental illness and those affected by it. The results of stigma can be profound. In those with mental illness, stigma can result in social isolation. It can result in difficulty locating a job, getting an education, or finding housing. It can also result in unnecessary suffering when individuals do not seek care. The nation as a whole suffers too, with an economic loss in productivity due to untreated mental illness of over $100 billion a year.

Fortunately, stigma can be reduced. In this article you will learn the facts about mental illness and find out what you can do to help combat stigma.

Causes of Mental Illness

A diagnosis of mental illness goes beyond merely having an off-day or feeling sad or anxious from time to time. Mental illnesses, which are also known as psychiatric illnesses, represent a pattern of behavior and often cause major life disruptions.

Mental illnesses are the result of biological, psychological, and social factors. Those affected have illnesses that are just as real as any medical illness. Like many medical illnesses, mental illness will not just go away and cannot be overcome through willpower alone.

Instead, people affected by mental illness need to be evaluated and treated by professionals. Many safe and effective treatments exist today, and rates of recovery are high with treatment.

Myths and Facts about Mental Illness

Many myths surround mental illness. Here are five facts to keep in mind:

Fact: Mental illnesses are common.

Each year, roughly 57 million Americans will be affected by one or more mental illnesses. Of these:

  • Roughly 40 million will suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, or social phobia.
  • Roughly 18 million will suffer from some form of depression
  • Roughly 2.6 million will suffer from bipolar disorder
  • Roughly 2.4 million will suffer from schizophrenia

Fact: Many people with mental illness recover and lead full lives.

More safe and effective treatments exist today than ever before. As a result, studies have shown that many people with mental illness recover.

In fact, rates of successful treatment for mental illnesses are often as high as or even higher than for common medical conditions, such as heart disease. For example:

  • Panic disorder has a successful treatment rate of 70-90%.
  • Depression has a successful treatment rate of over 80%.
  • Schizophrenia has a successful treatment rate of roughly 60%.
  • Heart disease has a successful treatment rate of 45-50%.

Many people with mental illnesses also lead productive and active professional and social lives.

In fact, some famous historical figures are believed to have suffered from mental illness, including Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway. Some currently known figures have been open in describing their successful treatment of mental illness. These figures include Brooke Shields, Ted Turner, Patty Duke, Mike Wallace, and Kitty Dukakis.

If you are interested in learning about more famous figures who have experienced mental illness, see the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) article People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives.

Fact: Mental illness is not a character weakness.

Mental illnesses are not a character weakness. They are the result of biological, psychological, and social factors. People with mental illness do not need to just pull themselves together. If they could do so easily, a formal diagnosis of a mental illness would be less likely.

Because mental illness will not go away through sheer willpower or by ignoring the problem, professional treatment is often needed to address the condition.

Fact: Children can have mental illness.

Some people believe that children do not suffer from mental illness. But in reality, children can be affected. In fact, in any given year, five to nine percent of children have a mental illness.

In addition, mental illness in adults often begins in childhood or adolescence. This is vital to remember because recognizing and treating mental health problems early leads to better outcomes.

Fact: People with mental illness are not violent.

Despite the fact that the media often depict people with mental illness as being dangerous, the vast majority are not violent. In fact, those suffering from mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than those in the general population.


Ways to Fight Stigma

Besides knowing the above facts about mental illness, you can also fight stigma in the following ways:

1. Educate yourself.

Learning more about mental illnesses allows people to better recognize stereotypes that wrongly portray those with mental illness. So learn more about mental illness. Then help to educate others.

One good place to start is the NetWellness Mental Health Center and the links at the end of this article. Another way to learn more is through books written about mental illness, such as those on the Mental Illness Reading List.

2. Talk openly about mental illness.

Talking about your own mental illness or the illness of a friend or family member can help to combat negative stereotypes. Keeping mental illness hidden helps to carry on the belief that it is shameful. So if you can, tell people about your experiences.

3. Offer support and encouragement to others.

Listening to the experiences of others with mental illness also helps combat stigma.

If a loved one seems to have symptoms of mental illness, talk to this person about your concerns and offer them your support. Encouraging someone to seek help and giving them your support may allow him or her to overcome stigma and get the assistance needed.

One good place to suggest for help is a primary care physician. These doctors have training in diagnosing and treating common mental illnesses in their patients. If a condition is beyond their expertise, they can make a referral to someone with more training in mental health.

You may also find the information in the article Seeking Help for Mental Illness helpful in encouraging a friend or family member to seek help. This article includes further information on finding and getting help.

4. Go beyond stereotypes.

Avoid judging people on the basis of stereotypes. In reality, a label of mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia tells us very little about that person. Such labels do not tell us about a person’s capacity for friendship or creativity. They do not tell us about his or her capability for achievement. And they certainly do not tell us that the person is weak, violent, unintelligent or a poor worker.

It is important to treat individuals affected by mental illness as people. If your connection with someone affected by mental illness is close enough, that person may feel comfortable talking about his or her illness. Learning what it is like to have this type of condition can be very powerful.

Although the effects of their illnesses vary, people with mental illnesses suffer just like people with physical diseases such as cancer or AIDS. They too deserve our sympathy and respect.

5. Avoid use of certain negative labels.

Another way to combat stigma is to watch what words you use. Terms such as lunatic or crazy should not be used when talking about mental illness. Just as a diagnosis of cancer should not produce jokes, mental illness should not either. Challenge the way you think about and use these terms.

6. Speak up when stigma arises.

If someone expresses a stigmatizing attitude, tactfully tell them. For example, if someone ridicules a person with mental illness or makes rude comments, let them know that that you find their words to be inappropriate. While this can be a tough step to take, it can also be empowering.

While stigma continues to be a real force in society today, there is much you can do. Learn more about the issues, support people you know with mental illness, and remember that great hope exists for the recovery of those who are affected.


Getting Help for Mental Illness

If you are affected by a mental illness or think that you may be, it is important that you see a professional for evaluation and treatment.

The article Seeking Help for Mental Illness talks about some concerns people may have about seeing a professional, describes some treatment options, and includes further links and ways you and your family members can cope. You may also find selections from Mental Health Reading List helpful.

Other Sources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives

Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Myths & Facts About Mental Health
Resource Center to Address Discrimination and Stigma
What a Difference a Friend Makes

This article was written by Jennifer Hoehn, Graduate Student, MPH Program, OSU College of Public Health.

For more information:

Go to the Mental Health health topic.