Did you know that 18%1 of the population has a mental health condition? Did you also know that 11%2 of the population has heart disease? There is less heart disease in the United States than people with mental health disorders. With mental health issues more prevalent than heart disease, why are mental health patients and families stigmatized?
Recently, the stigma associated with a mental health disorder affected me in a very profound way. I’m familiar with mental health issues because my family has a history of depression and anxiety, but in 2016 my 14 year old daughter had a suicide attempt and we were exposed to the stigma in a way which was new to us. Our journey started with my wife and I rushing my daughter to the emergency department where she had another three visits over the course of four months and was also admitted to the psych ward each of those times. After her time in the hospital, she spent the next several months attending a daily intensive outpatient program for adolescents. Next she spent one month living in a residential treatment facility. She spent the next six months at home enrolling in online schooling. With many doctors visits for medication management and one-on-one therapy in addition to group Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, she was able to integrate back into High School this year. I’m happy to say that she is doing much better as her suicidal ideations have diminished thanks to all the care we received over the past year. It’s been a long road to recovery and it would have been easier had stigma not been a part of her journey.
Unfortunately mental health disorders are viewed as embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for the patient, but also for the family because the subject is viewed as taboo by friends and family. This isn’t the case with other illnesses. Why is having heart disease less embarrassing than suffering from depression? Why is taking Lipitor more acceptable than taking Prozac? My family was faced with an ambush of gossip and innuendo. Your friends and family think, “they must be bad parents because they didn’t know what was going on with their daughter.” Moreover, what do I tell people at work? They surely won’t understand that I need time off to care for my daughter I can’t say anything at work because then it will go through the rumor mill and I don’t want to deal with all of that office craziness. Sure we received support from some of our friends, but for the most part, people were scared to talk to us because this was a mental health issue.
In addition to the stigma that my wife and I experienced, my daughter went through her own pain with shame caused by her friends. She was now labeled the crazy girl who was admitted to the psych ward. Teenagers perceive the psych ward as a place where crazy people are in straight jackets because that is how it is portrayed in the movies. A psych ward is a far cry from the depiction in movies like “Girl Interrupted” or “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.” So the stigma is perpetuated in the movies and television which does a disservice to how therapeutic a psych unit actually works and looks. In addition to fighting to heal herself, she had to navigate through misconceptions and the pressure that adolescents go through with their peers.
Let me provide a little more context to our journey with stigma that my family experienced. My next door neighbor was recently diagnosed with cancer. She told me that she has more casseroles in her freezer than she knows what to do with. Another friend of mine, whose father has terminal cancer, decided to take his dad out of the hospital so he could spend his final days at home. He too has a refrigerator filled with casseroles. My daughter suffers from depression, anxiety and PTSD and was admitted to the hospital for over a month. WHERE IS MY CASSEROLE? Of course I’m not really looking for a casserole, but for people to understand that mental health issues should be treated no differently than other medical disorders. They should be discussed with the same compassion and thoughtfulness that people provide to those suffering from all other ailments.
Let’s eradicate the stigma associated with mental health by seeking to talk openly and honestly about the issue. There are a few simple things you can do to help:
- Don’t be afraid to talk about mental health, but educate yourself and embrace that this is a common disease that affects nearly all families.
- Know that mental health is a disease, just like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
- Most importantly show compassion. It’s amazing how far a little compassion helps a family or person with mental health issues.
- Finally, if you know someone with a family member with mental health issues, perhaps you can make them a casserole. Here’s a helpful website to get you started. https://www.delish.com/cooking/g1702/casserole-recipes/
1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
2 Center for Disease Control
Glenn Kopelson is Co-Chair of the UCLA Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital Patient Family Advisory Council where he works on issues to improve the patient and family experience.