Our attitudes toward mental health are interesting. It’s really just one aspect of our overall condition, along with physical health. In fact, some dictionaries even define the word health as: a person’s mental or physical condition. Yet on some levels, we continue to act as if there are two separate states of health – physical and mental – and only one of them matters. That’s changing, albeit slowly. Corporations are looking to mindfulness to help employees, HMOs are actually talking about mental health as part of overall health.
This is a welcome direction. However, negative attitudes about mental health conditions put up some very real barriers for those who need treatment or are in recovery. And that can be summed up in one word: stigma. A mark of shame, a stain. There’s a history of stigma surrounding mental health issues. A history of people discrediting and disgracing the suffering of those with broken hearts and minds, no matter the cause. This is an underlying reason why we don’t talk much about mental health issues, including the one I know pretty well – post-traumatic stress reactions after violence or disasters.
Negative stereotypes about mental illness are a barrier. Those who need to get help have to admit they have issues and there is still much fear about doing that. Here’s a sobering statistic: Although most adults with mental health symptoms (77.6%) agreed that treatment can help persons with mental illness lead normal lives, only a quarter of them believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.
Mental health is something we can’t touch and most of us don’t think much about it. Until someone behaves in a way that indicates troubles. We’re all pretty good at hiding how we’re feeling, so we usually only experience mental health issues, in ourselves and others, when the behavior is severe.
The other reason our society doesn’t discuss mental health, wrapped up so tightly with stigma and shame that I have a hard time discerning the edge, is intentionality, the belief that we should be able to control our mental health. Therefore, if someone is struggling to stay mentally healthy, it’s due to their own lack of control. They contributed to it. They are weak. The suffering and pain is, therefore, their fault. This is in marked contrast to our physical health – when people have physical issues like cancer or a broken bone, we don’t think it was intentional. We don’t blame them for being weak and suggest they should just get over it. We understand when it takes time and effort, and professional assistance, to recover.
In the U.S. especially, we believe in rugged individualism, that we each make our own success. Whether we know his name or not, so many of us believe the Horatio Alger myth, prevalent in many of his novels, of rags to riches. If someone works hard they’ll be successful – and if they don’t succeed, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. We seem to simply transfer this belief from material and career success to mental health. This makes it very difficult to accept our mental health and any issues with it as normal – mild levels of distress, depression, anxiety, or something like post-traumatic stress after something horrible happens.
Because we don’t easily accept that outside factors impact our minds and not just our bodies, people are embarrassed to admit having issues with their emotional or mental health. Of course, the more people are embarrassed to talk about the mental side of our health (illnesses, issues, or a healthy state), the less apparent it is how normal these issues are. That, like the physical health we talk about so casually and so easily, mental health is just part of being human. The more we try to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, the more it hurt people who may really need some support. Including ourselves.